February 16, 2016; USA Today

This story fits into a trend having to do with access to databases. NPQ readers may remember our coverage of the police misconduct database in Chicago, which is intended to aid in advocacy and monitoring efforts.

When Morgan Hill Concerned Parents Association, a parent-run advocacy group for students with disabilities, attempted to get the data they needed to develop their advocacy agenda on what they suspected was a pattern of violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), they were granted way more than they originally bargained for when Judge Kimberly Mueller ordered that records on 10 million California public school students be made available to the group. The data will contain some sensitive information, including Social Security numbers, addresses, etc., and that has some other advocacy groups, including advocates for privacy, up in arms.

The judge’s order in this case describes the database to be made available as containing information on students going back to 2008:

Examples of information that is stored on CDE’s databases and network drives includes name, social security number, home address, demographics, course information, statewide assessment results, teacher demographics, program information, behavior and discipline information, progress reports, special education assessment plans, special education assessments/evaluations, Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), records pertaining to health, mental health and medical information, student statewide identifiers (SSID), attendance statistics, information on suspensions and expulsions, and results on state tests.

But Judge Mueller also issued a protective order that requires restricted access to the data as well as a “special master” (subject matter expert) to monitor the information to prevent its misuse.

The Morgan Hill group, along with the California Concerned Parents Association, has been trying for five years to get the data they need from the California State Department of Education to document whether or not students with disabilities receive public education services mandated under federal law and have been blocked. Christine English, vice president of California Concerned Parents, said access to the state’s data was necessary to determine if, for instance, “African-American students identified as intellectually disabled were disproportionately in special day classes as opposed to mainstreamed into general education classes. Or whether children who were diagnosed with behavioral issues had a behavioral management plan in place.”

English maintains that Concerned Parents came up with a number of scenarios under which the department could provide the necessary numbers without the group ever seeing individual student data. “We even said, ‘You sit in front of your computer terminal and we’ll query you and you give us the results.’” But the California Department of Education fought the disclosure of any kind of student information, making the suit a necessary strategy.

The parents of children whose information may be contained in the database have 60 days to opt out affirmatively by submitting a form. Still, privacy advocates are still understandably concerned.

Concerned Parents has posted a notice on Facebook to answer frequently asked questions about the situation, and both that statement and the court order that lays out a protective mechanism are worth a read by any who are interested in the uses of public data in advocacy.—Ruth McCambridge