California public-school records on about 10 million students -- including their Social Security numbers -- will soon be handed over to attorneys for a parent group suing the state, with both parties blaming the other for the impending release of private information.
Fewer than 10 people will receive the student data, and their review will be overseen by a court-ordered special master in electronic discovery. The attorneys reviewing the records are required to keep the data private and confidential, and will have to return or destroy it afterward. Parents also may request by April 1 an exemption from the court order to release their students' information, which will include addresses, test scores, disciplinary records, health and mental health records and more.
But privacy advocates worry about potential for the data to escape.
"Where does that software sit, where does that data sit?" asked Steven Liao, a Danville parent and IT professional. 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 noted, and even if the analysts then destroy it once they're done, he asked, "where is confirmation it's been destroyed?"
Parents in the Morgan Hill Unified School District filed the lawsuit, which contends that the California Department of Education does not force school districts to provide appropriate special-education services for children needing them.
California Concerned Parents Association, a group with members in 80 school districts throughout the state, has sought statewide data to prove its case that students with identified needs are not being provided adequate services. To do that, it needs to survey student school records.
But the group said it wasn't seeking kids' private information.
"We asked repeatedly, many times, for the data without identifiable information," said the group's president, Linda McNulty, whose son formerly attended Morgan Hill schools. She said the state Education Department refused.
But state officials insist they're not at fault.
"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 said.
It was not immediately clear why Social Security numbers and other sensitive information couldn't be redacted.
Judge Kimberly J. Mueller of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California has required the state to turn over data on all students in K-12 schools since January 2008. The data will go to the plaintiff's attorneys, Sagy Law Associates of San Francisco, sometime after the exemptions are received.
The stateEducation Department has posted links to the form (in English and Spanish) for parents to request their children's records not be released, and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has recommended that school districts, as well as county offices of education and charter school operators, do likewise.
"This is a pretty unusual request," said Stephen McMahon, chief business official of the San Jose Unified School District, which was going to add the notice to its website. "Once we put this on our website, people are going to panic."
A number of school districts surveyed on Tuesday were not aware of the coming release nor the request to advise parents about it.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Morgan Hill Unified was one of the few school districts that had posted on its home page a notice about the data release and how a parent could seek an exemption.
The state needs to reach out to parents, said Jim Steyer, CEO of the child-advocacy group Common Sense Media. "It shouldn't be up to parents to go searching for obscure postings on websites to find out on their own how they can opt out if they are concerned -- there has to be a wide-reaching and multilingual outreach effort in California, and that is currently not happening."
McNulty accused the state of dragging its feet and forcing the judge to order the data release. The suit was brought in 2012, and arguments have yet to be heard.
The California Concerned Parents Association also has posted a link to the exemption form on its website. Its vice president, Christine English of Los Angeles, noted that Social Security numbers, although routinely sought by schools, are not legally required for school enrollment. She has offered to instruct parents in how to request that their students' Social Security number be scrubbed from school district records.
About Social Security information, McNulty said, "We never asked for it; we don't really want it."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/noguchionk12.
To find the form for objecting to disclosure of students' personal information, go to 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.
To read about California Concerned Parents, go to californiaconcernedparents.org.