Education

Sacramento judge proposes tighter security for special-needs students’ data

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.

A Sacramento-based federal judge proposed a compromise Monday that would keep the most sensitive information of 10 million current and former students in the hands of the California Department of Education, potentially addressing privacy concerns raised by parents across the state.

District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller previously ordered the Department of Education to provide extensive student records to attorneys representing the families of special-needs students who have alleged the state is failing in its oversight role and allowing districts to provide inadequate instruction. As part of the suit, special education nonprofits want to analyze state data to prove their claims.

But the case, Morgan Hill Concerned Parents Association v. the California Department of Education, has generated a large number of “strong objections” to the court over the public disclosure of individual students’ names and records, Mueller said.

As a consequence, Mueller said she wanted to look for ways to reinforce existing protections to ensure that information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. The judge already has required a special monitor with cybersecurity expertise to maintain tight control over the data and use encryption techniques.

“I had thought we were ready for discovery without this court having to micromanage all aspects,” Mueller said. She said she wanted to “tell what the court’s plan is and give the parties a chance to respond.”

Mueller proposed allowing the most sensitive database, known as the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, to remain under the Department of Education’s control. For that database, Mueller said, plaintiffs could submit their computer queries to the state.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Rony Sagy of San Francisco said that could be difficult. “We have not seen any of these databases,” Sagy said. “We don’t know what they look like.”

“The Department of Education has said in the past they don’t know that they have the manpower to come up with what we are looking for,” Sagy added.

The Department of Education also has vowed to fight the release of the data.

CALPADS includes student demographics, course data, discipline, assessments, staff assignments and other information collected for state and federal reporting, according to the Department of Education website.

Plaintiffs have said they hope by looking at the data to measure, among other things, how many students are improperly denied access to special education and how many are not being provided the education to which they are entitled by law. About 10 percent of students are designated as special needs.

Mueller questioned whether Sagy needed identifying data for individual students.

We have not seen any of these databases. We don’t know what they look like.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Rony Sagy of San Francisco

Sagy responded that plaintiffs must be able to track individual students through multiple databases for a complete understanding. In addition, she said, some parents have given permission to have their children identified during the research but do not want the names of those children disclosed to the Department of Education.

In recent weeks, the Morgan Hill group and co-plaintiff Concerned Parents Association have complained in court filings that state officials inappropriately alarmed parents across California by using “incomplete or misleading messages.” The state has vigorously denied that claim.

The plaintiffs cited a web alert from Rocklin police about a “POSSIBLE IDENTITY THEFT RISK” urging visitors to “PROTECT YOUR CHILD’S STUDENT RECORDS FROM BEING RELEASED” by filing a formal objection to the court.

Mueller cited the warning as she talked about a “subset” of objections from parents who “are not fully informed.”

“The court has at least one notice advertising identify-theft risk,” Mueller said. “I think that is alarmist.”

The judge also clarified one point that may have driven parents to file objection forms in droves. She said that submitting the objection forms would not exclude plaintiffs from reviewing their children’s data.

“They are not opt-out forms,” she said.

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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