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Privacy Wars: California Assembly Members Want Students Protected Too

HERE’S WHAT I KNOW-Last Wednesday, state assembly members Melissa A. Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore), Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), and Mike Gatto (D- Los Angeles) introduced legislation that would require school districts to adequately protect the personal information of their students. 

 

Under Assembly Bill 2097, school districts would be prevented from collecting social security numbers and other sensitive data unless required by federal law.

How is the Bill connected to a court case that began five years ago? 

In a 2011, a court case involving the Morgan Hill Concerned Parents Association alleged that Santa Clara County was not delivering the mandated level of public education to its special education students. 

U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller in Sacramento ordered the Dept. of Education to release student records that includes identity, Social Security numbers, addresses, discipline and medical records, and other personal information of students who have attended California public schools since January 1, 2008. Parents will be able to register an objection by filling out a form to be sent to the judge’s office by the first of April. 

The release of records not only pertains to the 6.2 million students currently enrolled but also to the approximately 4 million students in the district going back to 2008.

Under the court’s orders -- since a breach could cost millions -- a master with cybersecurity experience will be charged with making sure the sensitive data is secure. Possible measures to be used include encryption and other safeguards, as well an assurance that there will be no public disclosure beyond the parties, their attorneys, consultants, the special master and the court. 

One issue is that the school district has employed Social Security numbers to identify special needs students, something that could compromise identity. 

The 2011 case expanded almost four years ago when the Concerned Parents Association joined Morgan Hill as a plaintiff. The suit now involves children at over 70 districts in the state. The plaintiffs are attempting to demonstrate that the state agency is failing to monitor, investigate, and correct non-compliance in public schools, and as such, the data are needed to ensure students who need special services aren’t excluded because they were not assessed. 

Is the release of this sensitive material crucial to the case? State Superintendent Tom Torlakson doesn’t seem to believe so. On the state’s website, he says the Dept. of Education did provide information from a California Special Education Management Information System database with the personal information scrubbed. 

While providing necessary services to the state’s special needs students is an important consideration, forcing the sharing of sensitive personal information and identification seems to be an overreach. The state superintendent has encouraged districts and county offices to provide parents with the link to file an Objection to Disclosure with the federal court and several districts have followed his lead.

Filling out the Objection may not necessarily stop the sharing of information. This seems to be yet another circumstance that pits personal privacy rights against a bigger picture. 

Parents can object to the data dump by April 1 via the Education Department's website, cde.ca.gov, or the California Concerned Parents Assn.'s website at californiaconcernedparents.org

(Beth Cone Kramer is a Los Angeles-based writer and writes for CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.