(TNS) — The personal information of 10 million California students, including not only names but also health records and Social Security numbers, must be provided under federal court order to lawyers suing the state Department of Education in a data dump that has some parents and privacy experts fuming.
The order issued this month by a U.S. District Court judge in Sacramento — the latest development in a long-running legal case over state oversight of special education — has prompted both the plaintiffs and defendants to point fingers over the impending release of records on every child who has attended a California public school since 2008.
The private data, likely to be released this year, will be handed over under seal, monitored by a special magistrate as well as a security expert, and available only to a handful of legal representatives. In addition, parents can pull their kids off the disclosure list by filling out a form and mailing it by April 1 to the judge, Kimberly Mueller.
But the court seal and opt-out provision haven't dispelled statewide concerns over the use of student data, the lack of parent notification and the possibility of a security breach. On Wednesday, many districts across the state were scrambling to provide information and inform parents.
"Parents deserve to know when the government is sharing their children's most sensitive information," said Jim Steyer, the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a family advocacy group based in San Francisco.
"While we understand the plaintiffs in this lawsuit are obtaining this data for limited purposes with good intentions," he said, "the court and the parties should be doing everything they can to ensure that the parents of the millions of affected children know why their Social Security numbers, behavioral and medical records, and other information are being shared."
Widespread data storage
The case comes amid a national conversation over student privacy, with concern growing over information security as schools increasingly use computers, online learning programs and cloud-based software to teach children and store data. Student information is no longer sitting in filing cabinets — it's stored on multiple computers at schools, district offices and state buildings.
The federal Department of Education has created a special office dedicated to data privacy, confidentiality and cybersecurity in schools, explaining, "Gone are the days when textbooks, photocopies, and filmstrips supplied the entirety of educational content to a classroom full of students."
The federal court case in Sacramento was initiated in 2008 by Morgan Hill parent Linda McNulty, through her organization California Concerned Parents, to address what she believed was a failure of the state to monitor school district compliance in providing special education services. The lawsuit gained class-action status in 2012.
Since then, the plaintiffs have fought to get state data — without identifiable student information — to bolster the allegations, information the state has declined to provide, McNulty said. The plaintiffs believe the data will reveal violations that could include a failure to identify special-needs students at an early age, or a disproportionate identification of Latino children as mentally disabled.
The attorneys don't need to know who the kids are, just what happened to them, McNulty said. "We have been over and over and over possible alternatives to get this data," she said. The state has "completely stonewalled us over the last three years."
State officials deny the claims in the lawsuit, and said Wednesday they were also trying to protect student privacy.
"We're in a lawsuit that we are fighting vigorously," said Peter Tira, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. "We are obligated by a court order in this case to produce this information, but at this point, the information has not yet been turned over to the plaintiffs and we are continuing to fight to protect students' rights in this case with every legal means and resource at our disposal."
Tira said the state provided all the information it had on special education students last year, with identifying information redacted, but that the plaintiffs continued to pursue deeper access.
For now, the state and school districts are posting the opt-out information on their websites, but many districts have yet to directly notify families of the court order.
In San Francisco, where the district has put the information on its website and plans to put it on every school's individual site, a few concerned parents have contacted officials to question the release, said district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe.
"We want to make it clear that we're not a party to the litigation," Blythe said. "We don't know what information the (Department of Education) needs to release. We just want to make sure parents can file a form to opt out."
Data already available
Not all parents are concerned, however. That's because dozens if not hundreds of people already have access to the same student data, from the school secretary who processed the parent emergency information forms to teachers who input grades, as well as district staff and state workers, said San Jose mom Nancy Jacques, a member of California Concerned Parents.
Under the court order, the data will be handled carefully, she said. "My son's data is more protected in this circumstance," she said, "than it is when it's traveling from districts to the (state) with access by many people."
The plaintiffs' attorneys need the vast amount of data, McNulty said, because they plan to study random samples in a bid to bolster their suit.
How to opt out
For more information on the federal court order related to California student records, or to get an opt-out form, go to www.cde.ca.gov/re/di/ws/morganhillcase.asp.
©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle, distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.