SAD 75: State policy threatens student privacy

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TOPSHAM — The School Administrative District 75 Board of Directors is criticizing a requirement to report incidences of prohibited student behavior to the state.

Directors said they will try to enlist support from other school districts willing to resist providing Augusta with the names of student perpetrators and victims.

SAD 75 Superintendent Mike Wilhelm said the reporting to the Maine Department of Education data system would include students involved in 39 categories of prohibited behavior. He said assault, theft, harassment and damage to property are some examples of this behavior.

“We administratively had some concerns about the fact that we are not only reporting to the state the names of the students who commit a prohibited behavior, but also the names of the victims,” Wilhelm said, adding that his staff is trying to understand the district’s obligations under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.

“There may be issues around what happens to that data that used to be secure in school hands,” he said.

Wilhelm said he discussed the matter with SAD 75’s lawyer, Peter Lowe, to determine possible courses of actions and if the district would be liable, upon reporting the names, if a breach of security occurs. He presented a letter from Lowe at the board’s March 26 meeting, stating that “he believes that we are not violating FERPA regulations when we report this to the state.”

Lowe stated, though, that if a parent brought a lawsuit against the state for accumulating the information, and if SAD 75 had submitted that information, the district could find itself dragged into the matter.

Wilhelm said attorneys for the district and the Maine Civil Liberties Union found no legal obligation for the district to send the names to the state. “All the state really needs under No Child Left Behind is the data, not the names,” he said.

The superintendent suggested three options for SAD 75. One would be to send the information to the state. The second is to send a letter from the board to the education commissioner to express discomfort with sending the names to the state. A third option would be to see if there are other school systems in the state that are also reluctant, and to take a collective stand.

“My choice would be that we band together with the other districts who are opposed to this, because I, too, am opposed to it, and see what we can accomplish that way,” said board member Joanne Rogers.

Board member Bob Hill also expressed opposition, saying he could not see why the state would need personal information in such a database. “I certainly, on behalf of the victims, think that there is significant risk to exposing them, either inadvertently or negligently,” Hill said. “… It doesn’t matter, they’re still re-victimized.”

Wilhelm said he is not sure what would happen if SAD 75 does not comply with the DOE requirement, although he mentioned the possibility of the state withholding funding.

“My question is why would we want to supply the names of either group of kids?” board member Gwen Thomas said. “We’ve seen kids turn themselves around. … Who knows where that information’s going to be and how long it’s going to be stored? Why would we want to do that? Why would we want to mark a kid, potentially permanently?”

Wilhelm said SAD 75 will not have to submit the information until the end of the year. He said he agrees with the suggestion to seek support from other districts, adding that he wants to learn the consequences for noncompliance, too.

David Connerty-Marin, DOE communications director, said Wednesday that subsidies can be withheld from a district in a case of noncompliance. “We wouldn’t do that at the drop of a hat, but that’s ultimately where that would go,” he said.

Several districts have raised concerns about the privacy factor, Connerty-Marin said, “which we fully understand, and we support that heightened vigilance about student privacy. But we have a fair amount of private information that we don’t share, and are not allowed to share, just like the district is not.”

Connerty-Marin explained that the state already has a database of information about every Maine student. He said districts use a Web-based form and “simply have to put in minimal information about the incident, and the name of the student, and the rest of it gets figured out by the database.”

Demographic information is automatically compiled from the state database based on the data sent by each school district. The state then submits that information to the U.S. Department of Education.

Connerty-Marin pointed out that while the districts enter information that includes student names, the database automatically populates the demographic information, and it is that data – not the names – that goes to the federal level.

“If we wanted to, we could go in and find that kid,” he said. “But that’s not how it works.”

Commenting on the potential for a breach of information, Connerty-Marin said the state has “very serious protocols” regarding security issues, and that he thought a breach at the state level was less likely to occur than at the district.

Wilhelm said the district could work with the Maine School Management Association to find other school systems facing the same dilemma.

“I am dead set against sending any names, whether they be victims or perpetrators, to the state,” board member Dee Carrier said. “Kids make mistakes, and they are punished, and they move on and do better.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or
A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.