Education

How to prevent your school data — including your Social Security number — from getting wrapped up in a lawsuit

FILE - A Compton Unified School District curriculum specialist assists a student in Tibby Elementary's computer lab.
FILE - A Compton Unified School District curriculum specialist assists a student in Tibby Elementary's computer lab.
Courtesy of Compton Unified School District

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If you were a student in a California public school at any point since 2008, data about you could soon be released to plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state's education department.

Though the records won't be released to the public, the plaintiffs will have access to records that include information on roughly 10 million current and former students, including their state test scores, home addresses and — for some students — Social Security numbers.

Don't want your data released? You have until April 1 to mail this objection form to a federal judge in Sacramento.*

U.S. District Court Judge Kimberly J. Mueller ordered the release of student data going back to 2008 as part of a lawsuit against California Department of Education in which a collection of parent groups, including the California Concerned Parents Association (CCPA), claims the state has failed to provide adequate special education services. The department denies that allegation.

CCPA vice president Christine English said the plaintiffs need the full dataset from the state to determine whether California schools are providing special education services to all students who need them. But English said her group isn't interested in the sensitive, personally-identifying information.

In a statement from the Department of Education, state superintendent Tom Torlakson said the judge will only release the information to plaintiffs if they can store it securely and all data will be returned to the department or destroyed after the lawsuit concludes.

“We have fought vigorously to protect students’ privacy rights and will continue that fight,” he said.

To maintain the security of the records, plaintiffs say the court has appointed a special master, who created a plan for transferring and storing the information securely, which specifies the data would only be transmitted on "fully encrypted external hard drives."

English says her group has also been active in informing parents about the release, not only posting a link to the court's objection form on its website, but also informing parents that they are not required to disclose their child's Social Security number to a school.

Among the information the disclosure might include, according to the judge:

Department officials said they had already provided the plaintiffs copies of a more limited set of records. That database included information on all special education students and kids being tested for special needs, but only after personally identifying information had been scrubbed from it.

But English said that data wasn't enough to answer her group's question. The plaintiffs suspect certain students are being excluded from special education services, and they would need to analyze data from the state's entire student population in order to determine whether that's true.

"The judge felt that it was important enough and [there was] enough information to know that, yes, it's highly likely the California Department of Education is out of compliance and it is important to allow a very small number of people access to this information," English said.

English said the plaintiffs' legal team had offered alternatives to disclosing the full dataset, including having the plaintiffs' statistician go to the department's offices and use the department's computers to run his analyses. English added her team requested state officials scrub personally identifying information from the full dataset, but the state said that was not an option.

Anyone who attended California schools at any point after Jan. 1, 2008, could have records that are part of this release. Anyone who wants to prevent those records from being part of the disclosure needs to send a letter or this form to the judge's office at this address:

The Honorable Kimberly J. Mueller
c/o Clerk of the Court
U. S. District Court for the Eastern District of California
501 I Street, Room 4-200
Sacramento, CA 95814
Attn: DOCUMENT FILED UNDER SEAL

* CLARIFICATION, Feb. 19, 6:30 p.m. — After initial publication of this story, English clarified that it's not certain filing an objection form will result in the judge ordering their records withheld. But failing to file such a form, the judge's notice reads, "will be deemed a waiver of your right to object to the disclosure of your or your child’s protected personal information and records."