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I have a friend in a high school computer science course in Texas. This is a course required for graduation and is not a volunteer thing. Apparently, the teacher is having the students develop an official app that the school intends to eventually use. This app deals with collecting and maintaining personal information about students in this particular school, as well as information about what classes they are enrolled in. They are not paying the students to do this. My friend says his entire course grade will be based on this app.

I'm an industry professional programmer, and this sounds extremely illegal to me, for a number of reasons, the first being that inexperienced programmers (kids) are not only being given access to protected information about minors (and thus is extremely likely to be exploitable/leakable), but also that they are being asked to work for the school without pay via threat of not graduating.

I looked briefly at the Texas child labor laws but they only seem to cover willful paid employment, which this is clearly not.

Is this legal?

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    Are the students developing the app collectively? If so, will they all pass the course or all fail the course? Do Texas high schools have any course curriculum requirements? Doesn't the school already operate a professionally produced, and managed, student and course database? Feb 9, 2023 at 20:32
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    Teachers always have students work on projects. Sometimes in groups,, sometimes alone. It's a Good Thing.
    – RonJohn
    Feb 10, 2023 at 6:09
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    "For me the bigger issue is that they're getting inexperienced students to develop an official app/website that will access protected data about minors. His class doesn't know anything about data security or how to do authentication/authorization properly." Nowhere is that mentioned in your question.
    – RonJohn
    Feb 10, 2023 at 6:11
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    Having seen such projects during my own studies, typically the use-case is there just for motivation and context. The result will rarely be more than a prototype level quality, and if the teacher is competent, will just handle dummy example data. So I think you or your friend is making more of this than it actually is.
    – jpa
    Feb 10, 2023 at 8:51
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    I am finding this scenario simply unbelievable. A teacher might phrase the project as "Develop an app that the school would use to schedule student's classes"- this does not mean they ever would. Technology at (public?) schools moves incredibly slowly- nobody is letting students- even at the college level- develop production apps to be used internally. I frankly don't believe this would ever happen.
    – rob
    Feb 10, 2023 at 18:31

2 Answers 2

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Various elements could be legal, or not. For example, it is legal to require students to do things in order to pass a class. It is legal to require a student to write a program for a course (entirely, or in part). It is legal for a teacher to give a "group grade".

It is not clear whether it is legal to require the student to assign copyright or license to the teacher / school – it may be legal to require a student to pay for their class, and copyright transfer might be valuable consideration for such a contract (assuming that there is a contractual relation at all as opposed to a statutory mandate – e.g. "high school"). If this is a public school, you can't make students pay for a mandatory class, therefore you cannot require assignment of copyright. It is very probably illegal for the student to access the educational records of other students, but the app could be developed with dummy data.

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    @SolomonUcko: The software has value and would be owned by the author, except the school is requiring them to transfer ownership of it to the school. (Where I'm using "ownership" loosely, but copyright on software is something they could hypothetically sell to someone else instead of giving it to the school). The question doesn't say anything about assigning their copyright to the school or license it for free to the school, but one or the other would be necessary for the school to actually use the software, I think. Feb 10, 2023 at 5:52
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    "the app could be developed with dummy data." Well, it should be developed with dummy data...
    – RonJohn
    Feb 10, 2023 at 6:12
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    @SolomonUcko "To have the compensation make sense, wouldn't it have to either be the students receiving the copyright". Absent a lawful assignment of copyright, students/programmers are the copyright owners by default, i.e., from the moment of creation. One cannot be compensated with something he owns in the first place. Feb 10, 2023 at 10:49
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    @preferred_anon: In the US, a "public school" is a government-run school, which is required to provide free education to everyone living in a given area (a "school district"). It has a completely different meaning to the UK's "public school." They cannot charge tuition, and for the most part, cannot set qualifications or terms (but see also "magnet schools" in some states), because they are a government service offered to everyone in a given age range.
    – Kevin
    Feb 10, 2023 at 20:06
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    @JasonGoemaat While HomEc and such are not popular anymore, creating baked goods for fundraisers was fairly common. At least in the elementary school system I went to, displaying student art work was also fairly common. The last example is very different in kind -- I don't think there is any argument that an employee cannot claim copyright, the question is if the school can claim it. I am not a lawyer, so I am not going to turn this into a full answer, but some quick searching shows this issue has come up before in the context of commercially viable student photography. And is a grey area.
    – Chuu
    Feb 10, 2023 at 21:50
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No.

"Forced Labor" is typically a term used to refer to countries that have prison or internment camps where there is no choice in doing the work and trying to choose not to means starvation and beatings.

Where as "paid employment" is a term that can then be compared to "unpaid employment" and in a school setting as "education".

You may wish to study North Korea and China to gain more insight into these practices.

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