Education

Special-education groups say California alarmed parents about data transfer

Video: Automated calls notify parents about release of student information

Sacramento City Unified School District made automated calls to families informing them of the legal case regarding the disclosure of student information and advising how parents could file an objection.
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Sacramento City Unified School District made automated calls to families informing them of the legal case regarding the disclosure of student information and advising how parents could file an objection.

Special-education nonprofits allege that state officials inappropriately alarmed parents across California by using “incomplete or misleading messages” in telling them that sensitive records for 10 million current and former students will be disclosed.

Attorneys for the nonprofits and the California Department of Education are scheduled to appear in a Sacramento federal courtroom Monday to discuss the manner in which public school officials have informed parents of a pending, court-approved data transfer. U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller previously ordered the state to provide extensive student records to the nonprofits’ attorneys in a legal battle over whether schools are providing special-education students with the instruction to which they are entitled.

Mueller called for the hearing after a San Francisco law firm complained that school districts and the state Department of Education have been encouraging parents to object to the judge’s order to turn over student records to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

The attorney general’s office, in its own letter on behalf of the state agency, said that it “categorically denies” allegations that the state has misled the public. The letter said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson “simply reminded parents of their opportunity to object.”

“The public has expressed confusion and fear over the potential release of student data, and have naturally turned to CDE, among others, for guidance,” wrote Deputy Attorney General Julia R. Jackson. The Jackson letter, in turn, described misleading comments by the plaintiffs’ representatives.

The data, once released, is to be tightly controlled by a special master who is an expert on cybersecurity and has suggested that the data be encrypted. Mueller’s order bars any public disclosure beyond the parties involved in the federal case, their attorneys, consultants, the special master and the court.

Parents have until April 1 to object by mail to the court about sharing a student’s records. So many objections have been filed that the court said Thursday that it has suspended efforts to provide a weekly count.

The case, Morgan Hill Concerned Parents Association v. the California Department of Education, drew little attention when it was filed in 2011. But members of the public and some lawmakers were galvanized after Mueller ordered the Department of Education to turn over a broad swath of student records, including names, some Social Security numbers, home addresses, disciplinary records, medical information and progress reports for 6.2 million current and 4 million former students who have attended California public schools since Jan. 1, 2008.

I saw a quote from CDE that parents are fearful, confused and angry. I went, ‘No kidding. And you’re the one that created the fear, confusion and anger.’

Christine English, vice president of the Concerned Parents Association

The case focuses on plaintiffs’ allegations that the Department of Education is “violating the rights of children with disabilities” who make up about 10 percent of the students enrolled in California’s public schools. Attorneys from both parties have battled for several years over data that plaintiffs expect will show special-needs students have been improperly denied access to education mandated in state and federal law.

Christine English, a representative of one group of plaintiffs in the case, said she believes the Department of Education is waging a fear-based campaign.

“I saw a quote from CDE that parents are fearful, confused and angry,” said English, vice president of the Concerned Parents Association, which joined Morgan Hill parents in the suit. “I went, ‘No kidding. And you’re the one that created the fear, confusion and anger.’ We’re just parents, and we’re volunteering.”

In Rocklin, the Police Department’s crime-prevention coordinator posted information about the student data release as an alert about a “POSSIBLE IDENTITY THEFT RISK” on the neighborhood-focused website Nextdoor. The coordinator, Wendy Smith, said she found the warning on the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse after hearing about it via social media.

The Rocklin police post includes a graphic with an exclamation point and the word “alert” in an orange triangle. It urges visitors to “PROTECT YOUR CHILD’S STUDENT RECORDS FROM BEING RELEASED” by filling out the court objection form.

We know many parents are fearful because we’ve received so many calls from them, which is precisely why we are fighting so hard to keep their students’ data private. We will be making that point in court on Monday.

Peter Tira, spokesman, California Department of Education

San Ramon Valley Unified was among a large number of school districts that warned parents that confidential information about their children was being “released,” and instructed parents how to object, wrote plaintiffs’ attorney Rony Sagy of San Francisco.

And a parent in the Morgan Hill Unified School District said in a newly filed declaration that the district sent an automated call encouraging all parents to object to the court. The mother, a member of the Morgan Hill Concerned Parents Association that brought the lawsuit, said her eighth-grade son was distressed after his teacher sent home the objection form and “demanded” that parents sign it.

Three Assembly members have introduced legislation to protect students’ Social Security numbers in response to the court case. A fourth, Assemblyman Ed Chau, D-Arcadia, wrote Torlakson this month that if protected personal information were to fall into the wrong hands, “the lifelong consequences for those affected would be disastrous.”

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, issued a statement Thursday saying he believes the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act “did not envision the mass release of unredacted children’s data, such as Social Security numbers, disciplinary information and mental health records.”

He urged that those involved in the case “find a way” for plaintiffs to get the data they need without disclosing the personal information of every public school student in the state.

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