A judge has ordered the release of public-school records on about 10 million California public-school students – including each child’s name, Social Security number, address, mental health assessment, medical history, and test scores.
In her ruling, Judge Kimberly Mueller granted a small, parent-run non-profit group working for the rights of disabled children access to the sensitive information of each student in grades kindergarten through 12th grade who attended public school in California since Jan. 1, 2008. The records must be made available to a court-appointed data analyst so they can be analyzed on behalf of the Morgan Hill Unified School District parent group, according to USA Today.
The parent group is suing the California State Department of Education because it does not believe the state requires school districts to provide appropriate special-education services for children needing them, as mandated under federal law. The California Concerned Parents Association, which advocates for students with disabilities statewide, joined Morgan Hill’s lawsuit. The state vehemently denies the allegations and is defending itself against the lawsuit, a spokesman told USA Today.
The Concerned Parents group requested statewide data to prove its case that students with special needs are not being given adequate attention. But the parent groups said they never asked for, nor do they want, students’ personally identifiable information.
"We asked repeatedly, many times, for the data without identifiable information," the group's president, Linda McNulty, told the San Jose Mercury Sun. She said the state education department refused.
The state said it’s just following the judge’s orders.
"The California Department of Education has been fighting vigorously to defend the privacy rights of students throughout California, but we are required to comply with the court order in this case," department spokesman Peter Tira responded.
However, the Mercury Sun said it was not clear why Social Security numbers and other sensitive information couldn't be redacted.
The court order allows parents who wish to opt-out of the release of their child’s information to do so by filling out an exemption form by April 1. The form is now available on the California Department of Education’s website.
After any exemptions are received, the state will turn over the entire database of student data to the plaintiff’s attorneys. According to the Mercury Sun, the court order allows fewer than 10 people to access the student data, and their review will be closely overseen by a court-ordered special master in electronic discovery.
According to USA Today, the attorneys reviewing the records are required by a protective order to keep the data private and confidential. Once the group completes its statistical analysis, it is required to "either return or destroy the confidential data at the conclusion of the lawsuit. No student’s identifying records will be disclosed to the public," the parent group said.
But with data breaches so prevalent, privacy advocates worry about the potential for sensitive student information to escape.
"Where does that software sit, where does that data sit?" Steven Liao, a parent and IT professional, asked the Mercury Sun. “Once data has left the Department of Education," he said, "there's no way to confirm control over it.” The data will migrate to where it's backed up, he added, and even if analysts then destroy it once they're done, how do we know it’s really been destroyed?
The California State PTA is investigating whether it can seek an injunction to slow the process so families have more time to opt out, USA Today reported.
The exemption form is available at www.cde.ca.gov/re/di/ws/morganhillcase.asp. The form must be filled out and mailed to the court (address is on the form) by April 1.