Soapbox

Court should protect privacy of California’s students

Computer tech teacher Jeff Darrow assists students at Winston Churchill Middle School in Carmichael on Feb. 10. School groups are warning that a court order could threaten the privacy of student information.
Computer tech teacher Jeff Darrow assists students at Winston Churchill Middle School in Carmichael on Feb. 10. School groups are warning that a court order could threaten the privacy of student information. rbenton@sacbee.com

When parents entrust a child to public schools, the system accepts a special responsibility to protect and enrich the student. That responsibility includes safeguarding personal information – a right guaranteed by state and federal law.

Yet, a recent federal court order threatens student privacy rights by forcing the California Department of Education to release as many as 10 million student records containing names, addresses, phone numbers and Social Security numbers, as well as sensitive information on behavior, academic performance and health.

If you attended a California public school since 2008, have a child who did, or have a student currently in California schools, your private records could be shared with attorneys suing the Department of Education over whether school districts are providing appropriate special education services.

To be clear, we recognize the importance of collecting data that could potentially improve special education services. We regularly advocate for students with special needs to receive appropriate support and services. But we believe the action taken by U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller exceeds what is necessary to satisfy the plaintiffs. A hearing is scheduled Friday to further discuss the court order.

Immediate action is required. We call on the Department of Education to seek an order protecting against the release of confidential information while a more appropriate solution is identified. Our organizations represent parents, families, school board trustees and education administrators across the state, and our members are raising questions and fielding complaints about the potential security breach. This matter is critically important to us, and it’s important to our communities, our families and our students.

The release of this massive trove of personal information would be unprecedented, unwarranted and fraught with risk. We’re confident that the courts, the plaintiffs and the Department of Education can provide the desired information without potentially compromising the privacy of every student educated in California public schools since 2008. For example, redacting sensitive personal information from the disclosure request seems reasonable.

If you care, as we do, about personal privacy, we ask that you contact the education department and your legislators and express your opposition to the excessive release of personal information. If you or your child are affected by the court ruling, we strongly suggest that you consider voicing your objection using the form that can be found on our websites. Whenever student data is involved, the strongest precautions must be taken to ensure that privacy is respected and protected. Let’s find a sensible way to balance the need for information with respect for a student’s right to privacy.

Sherry Griffith is executive director of the California State PTA and can be contacted at sgriffith@capta.org. Vernon M. Billy is CEO and executive director of the California School Boards Association and can be contacted at vbilly@csba.org. Wesley Smith is executive director of the Association of California School Administrators and can be contacted at wsmith@acsa.org.

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