Getting the Message Across

The senior VP of a school community engagement platform talks TCPA.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Nate BroganIn 1999, SchoolMessenger began as a provider of notification services. Since then, they’ve grown to provide a range of school-to-home communications solutions — from websites and mobile apps to social media management tools and safe student email. Their products and services, which are available in multiple languages and can be used on any device, enable K-12 schools to engage efficiently and easily with their communities. They’re now used by more than 55,000 schools and other educational institutions throughout the U.S. and Canada. SchoolMessenger is a part of West Corporation, which for more than 25 years has provided technology-enabled communication services to clients in a wide range of industries. Nate Brogan joined SchoolMessenger in 2000 and has served in various leadership roles, helping

Automated school notification systems continue to be an effective and efficient way to engage the school community and communicate important or timely information.

to drive their growth from a dozen schools to half of all schools in the United States. Currently he is senior vice president.

What is the value of strong school-to-home communications?

Nate: School-to-home communications, whether they are via text, phone call, email or social media, are valuable for ensuring a strong school community, involving parents in their child’s learning, alerting parents of changes in the school calendar, or notifying families when there are critical incidents at school, such as weather-related closings, evacuations or lockdowns.

What is the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) and why is it important for education leaders to know about it?

Nate: The TCPA was created in 1991 and is administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Among other things, it prohibits certain types of calls made by automatic dialing systems to mobile phones without the prior express consent of the recipient.

School districts are increasingly using automated notification systems to quickly and easily communicate with families and their school communities. Understanding and complying with the TCPA is crucial for school leaders, so they can maximize their investments in automated notification systems and ensure their organization’s communication practices follow the law and minimize their legal exposure.

The tools built into SchoolMessenger solutions can help schools and school districts more easily manage consent, enforce district policy and tailor communications to suit recipients’ preferences.

What is new in the FCC rules governing the TCPA?

Nate: First, I should share that I am not an attorney and that it is critical that school leaders consult their own legal counselors to review the law and how it may impact their school communications. With that said, I can share that last year, the FCC issued a Declaratory Ruling and Order related to the TCPA. The ruling had three key components:

First, it reiterated that consent is required from the “called party.” This is who is designated as the consumer—in the case of schools, that’s the parent or guardian—assigned to the number dialed and billed for the call. In some cases, it’s the number in a family or business calling plan.

Second, it reaffirmed that called parties must be able to revoke their consent at any time and in any reasonable manner, and that the sender of the message (in this case, the school or district) bears the burden of the proof of the consent.

Finally, it repeated that consent is not required for calls for “emergency purposes,” which are defined as calls “made necessary in any situation affecting the health and safety of consumers.”

Do schools have to completely overhaul their school communications as a result of TCPA?

CREDIT SchoolMessengerNate: No, compliance does not have to mean that schools must completely overhaul their communications; rather, it’s a reminder to adhere to messaging best practices.

The TCPA presents school districts with an opportunity to update their strategies for engaging and communicating with parents, starting with their data collection practices. Schools that get ahead of the curve and develop an ongoing strategy for updating communications permissions from parents and guardians will be able to maintain their TCPA compliance. Plus, doing so can help districts learn families’ preferred communication channels, which will only make the communications more effective.

What are the most important things for school leaders to know about TCPA?

Nate: The rules prohibit calls made using automatic telephone dialing equipment or a prerecorded message to any phone number assigned to a cell phone or any service for which the recipient of the call is charged for the call without prior express consent, unless the call is for “emergency purposes” as defined by the TCPA.

And school leaders need to know that the FCC considers a text message to be a call.

I would also mention that organizations such as the National School Public Relations Association can provide information, tools and strategies to support schools as they implement best practices for school-to-home communications. Most importantly, consulting with the school district’s legal counsel and carefully considering communications policies and procedures can help school comply with the TCPA and minimize their risk.

Does it mean that school districts should no longer use autodialing to contact parents

Nate: No, but school districts that use automated notification systems have to ensure that they have processes for obtaining parents’ consent, managing opt-outs, carefully considering what is and is not an emergency under the law, and integrating up-to-date records of consent information with their notification systems.

Potential consequences for noncompliance?

Nate: Under the TCPA, consumers can sue for $500 per violation (that is, $500 per call) and can be awarded triple that, up to $1,500 per call, if the violations are done willfully and knowingly. In addition, the FCC has the authority to assess civil penalties of up to $16,000 per violation.

Any best practices districts should know about in terms of compliance?

Nate: In our experience we find that the schools that have really researched this topic are careful to never send commercial solicitations, which require prior express written (and signed) consent and they always obtain express consent to send messages to each specific contact number and for each specific broadcast method by asking recipients to “opt in.” Many school districts collect a variety of permissions and other information from parents — including field trip forms, school directory information opt-outs or student health information — at the beginning of each school year. So schools typically have systems for gathering and storing this information, whether it’s a technology-based system or a metal filing cabinet with a lock and key. This makes back-to-school a prime time to collect, store and implement communications preferences from parents. But ideally, it can be done using electronic systems that automatically record and update the school’s notification system.

In addition, schools should have a consolidated, up-to-date data collection system and automated tools that minimize manual data entry, accelerate message delivery and reduce human error.

Regardless of when the information is collected, it is crucial that schools properly act on and store it. For example, if a parent text messages to opt out of being contacted, this information must be immediately updated in the school’s notification system, and it must be kept on file for future reference. Small issues can become big ones if someone opts out of a communication channel, but the organization does not properly act to honor the recipient’s request. This kind of mistake is most likely to happen when the district’s central office does not clearly communicate its policies and the importance of TCPA compliance to the people at the schools who collect and manage this information.

This also can happen when embedded and automated tools are not included in the broadcast communications to more easily record, manage and act on the called party’s preferences.

Finally, schools should provide recipients with online and mobile tools to manage their communication preferences. Recipients should be able to use those tools to notify the school of any changes in their contact information.

Any best practices for school-to-home messaging more generally?

One best practice is for schools to watch “over-messaging.” While there is no question that automated notification systems provide a great tool for school-to-home communications, parents can quickly become overwhelmed by too much communication. Think about companies you deal with that ask customers to opt in to receive email or texts, and then send multiple messages each week — or even each day. For many recipients, the impulse is to either ignore or delete the message, or to opt out completely.

Another best practice is for school districts to match their message to the channel — whether they’re using recorded voice call, text message, email or social media, consider the best channel for communicating it. For example, letting parents know about a pep rally before the next basketball game might be most effectively communicated via email, so recipients can read the message on their own time; a text or phone call might be seen as too intrusive. Text messages and phone calls should be reserved for topics that require immediate attention, such as school attendance notifications, emergency closures or that night’s homework assignment.

Steve Anderson, SchoolMessenger’s director of solutions engineering and one of the creators of #edchat on Twitter, recommends that districts ask three questions to avoid message fatigue:

-Is there information at the district level that is also duplicated at the school level or the classroom level?

-Can information be shared so that it comes from one channel? What’s the best channel to use to send the information?

-Is there a way to share information with the school community less often, but still ensure that it is timely?

Another useful approach is to give parents or guardians the control of their own contact preferences — through either a mobile app or communications web portal created by the district. This would enable parents to use a smartphone or web-enabled device to select which types of communications arrive, and through what channels. The schools still control what is sent, but parents can determine which channels make the most sense for them based on their everyday routines and how they normally receive information.

What resources do you have to help school districts improve the effectiveness of parent communications and comply with updated federal regulations?

SchoolMessenger LOGOSchoolMessenger recently created the K-12 TCPA Resource Center. It’s an online clearinghouse of materials that will help school districts improve their understanding of, and maintain compliance with, updated federal regulations for communicating with parents at www.schoolmessenger.com/TCPA.

Another area of consideration is Digital Equity. See: https://edtechdigest.wordpress.com/2016/02/17/trends-digital-equity/. The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) recently released a Digital Equity Toolkit. How is SchoolMessenger addressing this issue?

SchoolMessenger is committed to digital equity and to closing the digital divide, and our sponsorship of CoSN, which developed the Digital Equity Toolkit, is illustrative of that commitment. It is also why we develop our school communications solutions to work on the wide range of devices that parents and students have access to today.

What new solutions will you be offering for school communications in the near future?

Nate: With the prevalence of smartphones, it is increasingly important for schools to provide real time information through a wide variety of devices, and in a way that best matches parent preferences with school communication policies. At SchoolMessenger, we are continuing to invest in the integration of our product portfolio to provide an even more unified experience across mobile, web and other channels. You’ll continue to see more development in this area from us.

Thanks, Nate, much appreciated. Anything else you care to add or emphasize?  

Nate: Automated school notification systems continue to be an effective and efficient way to engage the school community and communicate important or timely information. As school and family electronic communication needs evolve and grow, school leaders are wise to stay abreast of new regulatory requirements, technology solutions and best practices.

We take great pride in our mission to help schools communicate with their communities reliably, effectively and efficiently, and we’re honored that we’ve earned the trust of more than 55,000 schools across the United States. and Canada.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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