Judge encourages parties to devise solution that provides needed data while preventing disclosure of sensitive information
US Federal Court Judge Kimberly J. Mueller held a hearing Monday in the case of Morgan Hill Concerned Parents Association v. California Department of Education, with specific attention paid to a court order that could have resulted in the release of up to 10 million student records to plaintiff’s attorneys.
Plaintiffs are seeking the records in order to determine whether California school districts are providing appropriate special education services, but the records may contain names, addresses, phone numbers and social security numbers as well as sensitive information on behavior, academic performance and health.
No definitive ruling was made on provision of the records. Judge Mueller reminded both parties that the discovery process in this case is ongoing. She encouraged both sides to work with a court-appointed special master to resolve disputes in a way that provides the plaintiffs with information they are entitled to while protecting against disclosure of sensitive information that the plaintiffs have acknowledged they do not really need. She also offered clarification and new directives for the parties that contain significant meaning for school districts, students and families across the state.
“Voluminous” objections from parents
As a result of notifications sent by the CDE, school districts, CSBA, California State PTA, ACSA and others, Judge Mueller acknowledged that the court had received a “voluminous” number of objections to the potential release of personally identifiable student information. The judge emphasized that these objections are not equivalent to opt-outs and do not exempt those who submitted them from whatever form of disclosure is ultimately approved – but she acknowledged the large amount indicates a level of concern. The objections will be archived and sealed by the court. Judge Mueller also reminded both sides and others attending the hearing that, according to previous rulings, no data can be transferred unless and until the plaintiffs meet the security requirements contained in the “e-protocol” that was developed in this case to guide the discovery process.
While she did not grant the CDE’s request for a stay of discovery, Judge Mueller amended the e-protocol with respect to the CDE’s main student database, the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS). No data from the CALPADs database will be transferred; rather, the plaintiffs will be allowed to make queries for specific data and—as approved by the court-appointed special master for discovery—these will be presented to CDE for the department to run against the CALPADS database and provide the results. The precise nature of these queries will be determined through negotiations between plaintiff’s attorneys, CDE and the special master.
As of this time, information from student databases maintained by CDE excepting CALPADS may be transferred if the special master certifies that plaintiffs meet the security protocols, although the judge left open the possibility that the e-protocol for those databases could be modified as well to include third party data requests or to allow for additional anonymity.
Judge Mueller also noted that this case has raised some important considerations that the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974, provides limited guidance on – especially issues related to modern technology, such as “e-disclosure” involved in this case and the related security concerns.
CSBA will continue to closely monitor developments in this case and inform our members, with the goal of protecting the privacy of students’ personal information. For more information, please consult the Sacramento Bee opinion piece we co-authored on this topic as well as our member guidance containing CSBA sample policies on student and family privacy rights, student records and the release of directory information.