Editorial: Keep student data private in special-ed lawsuit

Student data privacy

A ruling ordering the release of the personal data of more than 10 million California students highlights the growing amount of information schools now collect. Above, students practice their math skills at Ritter Elementary School in 2012.

(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

What was U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller thinking when she ordered the state to release demographic and personal information about all public school students, including their names, Social Security numbers (if the state has them), home addresses, mental health information and behavior and disciplinary records? Mueller’s order tramples on the privacy of California’s schoolchildren and their parents.

Mueller ruled that the information must be given to the plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging that the state has deprived students with learning problems of services to which they are entitled. Lawyers from the two organizations that have sued want to pore over the data for signs that the state is shorting students on special education services.

It’s hard to fathom why Mueller felt it was remotely appropriate to demand clearly identifying information such as names, addresses and Social Security numbers.

Parents can file an “objection,” if they happen to know this is occurring, but that doesn’t guarantee any protection — it’s merely an objection, not an opt-out. And though many school districts have been reaching out to parents to let them know about the massive data transfer, others haven’t, and few have bothered extending this courtesy to former students, even though all students since 2008 are included in the order. Although the judge issued a protective order barring the disclosure of confidential information to anyone other than the plaintiffs and their attorneys, that seems an insufficient guarantee that such sensitive data won’t get out.


One reasonable compromise might be for the California Department of Education to redact students’ names, addresses and the like, while agreeing to turn over the useful underlying data in an anonymized format. But the state is not arguing for such a compromise. Instead, it is vehemently objecting in court to providing pretty much any demographic material at all, arguing that in some cases — such as when a student is the only one of a particular race in a small school — the information, even if anonymous, could be used to figure out who that student is.

This stance seems a bit disingenuous, because it would obviously also protect the state from giving out information that could usefully help determine whether students are being shortchanged. It’s important to know, for example, whether black students have the same chance of receiving special-ed services as white students, or whether students who receive subsidized lunches are more or less likely to be identified with learning issues than wealthier ones.

It’s hard to fathom why Mueller felt it was remotely appropriate to demand clearly identifying information such as names, addresses and Social Security numbers. Even the “objection” system is unfair and likely to skew the results, because educated parents are more likely to fill out the paperwork.

And why is the information needed for all students rather than a random sample?


This issue shouldn’t be hard to resolve. Information that identifies students must be redacted from any records turned over. At the same time, the state shouldn’t be able to drum up parent outrage as a way to avoid providing relevant information. In other words, basic reason should be employed. Those who will be hurt most if it isn’t are the millions of current and former California public-school students and their families.

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