Court-ordered release of student information causes concern in California school districts

By Emma Gallimore | Apr 3, 2016

SACRAMENTO –Some California parents are outraged at a judge’s order to release information about schoolchildren to two non-profit organizations comprising parents of students with special needs.

District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller ordered that the information be released as part of an ongoing lawsuit between the California Department of Education and the two nonprofits: Morgan Hill Concerned Parents Association and the Concerned Parents Association.

The nonprofits, who are the plaintiffs in the case, allege that the CDE has violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by failing to monitor and provide appropriate services to children with disabilities. In order to prove their case, they sought access to the information.

Parent’s and privacy groups expressed fears that releasing such information would leave children open to identify theft.

Christine English, vice president of the California Concerned Parents Association, thinks that some of the concern stems from parents not being aware of how reporting works in California. School districts in California are required to electronically report information to the Department of Education. This includes student data.

“California has directory info that is routinely released at the district level that includes name address phone number grade, along with test scores. A whole bunch of what people would refer to as personally identifying information,” English recently told the Northern California Record. “So unless parents decide to opt out of providing directory information, that information is already publicly available.”

That information is of no interest to the Concerned Parents groups. What they are interested in is derivative data, that is statistical data that will help their lawyers and experts identify whether or not school districts are meeting mandated requirements.

English said that each student is assigned a numerical code based on their special need, for example, autism is code 26, and if that student spends most of the day in a general education classroom he gets a code 95. If he’s mostly in a special education classroom, he gets a 92. This numerically derivative information can be examined to identify whether students are getting the services mandated by the state.

“In order to support our allegation that the California Department of Education is failing to provide appropriate oversight, transparency and compliance with the laws, we require access to the derivative data,” English said.

According to English, the CDE has taken an all-or-nothing stance with the release of student information. It has refused to release just the derivative data, and so a court order was required to compel the CDE to release its entire database.

The information will be released to a special master, a judge-appointed authority who will ensure that judicial orders are followed appropriately. The special master will work with the plaintiffs' legal team and a few experts, including a statistician, to assess the data.

“There is no information that is being released to the organization,” English said. “It will be released to less than 10 people.”

Electronic security protocols are in place. English said those protocols are a higher standard than those imposed on any subcontractor, contractor or vendor currently working with the CDE.

Parents had until April 1 to fill out an objection form that would prevent their student’s information from being released.

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