What All Parents Need to Know About the Release of Information and the California Department of Education

What if your school emailed you that your child was tied to their chair with rope at school, but the school declined to tell you anything more? Well, this is exactly how many districts are treating us (parents of public school children) concerning the release of information in the case Morgan Hill Concerned Parents Association v. California Department of Education (CDE), Case No. 11-3471.  The parents of Morgan Hill are alleging widespread and systemic failure of our school system to provide children with disabilities with their statutory entitlement to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) and many districts are only providing parents a small part of the story or worse misinformation about this case.

Our most vulnerable children are often not being served, and these Morgan Hill parents are trying to expose deep-rooted problems.  In order to gauge institutional issues around how children with special needs are evaluated and treated, the plaintiffs need to access student information the CDE has.  The districts have responded with emails scaring many parents without giving them any real information about how and where student data is to be disseminated. Unlike what the districts are telling people, the court order states “no students identifying records will be disclosed to the public.”  The judge in this case went as far as to appoint an IT consulting firm as a digital special master, (to ensure security measures) which will collect the data and a team of no more than 10 people will have access to the information, including attorneys and experts.  A protective order issued by the judge prevents anyone involved in the lawsuit from disclosing any student information. The records must be returned or destroyed when the lawsuit concludes.   In addition, a separate judge will oversee the data transfer.

Superintendents have been counseled to inform parents that there is a release of student information regarding this case, but they omit or misrepresent what that really means to your family.  This is not some giant leak of information about California students.   It is fewer than 10 people evaluating student records, so they can assess the treatment of special needs children in the state of California.

And here is a little background about the Morgan Hill plaintiffs’ allegations.  According to one website:

“The complaint alleges, for example, that children with behavior problems have been improperly tied to their chairs and excluded from all educational opportunities. In another instance, plaintiffs claim that a 14-year-old who was bullied and had attempted suicide, was determined to have no social or emotional needs. And the non-English-speaking parents of a child with an autism diagnosis and ADHD were told the district had lost his records and demanded the parents agree to an educational program with dramatically reduced services.”

If these facts are news to you, you are not alone.  In many districts, including my district, schools are giving parents only half the story, or worse, misinformation about the case and student data release.  For example, as of right now you cannot “opt-out” as many superintendents are claiming.  Moreover, the objection letter they are disseminating is a creation of the CDE.  Why do they want you to object without being fully informed? Well, the CDE- which is being sued-would likely prefer you to believe this is a privacy issue because that clouds the real issues at the core of this case concerning the CDE’s statewide violations against students in California.

So, now you know the information is not really being “released” but used in a case, are there other reasons not to object to your child’s information going to the plaintiffs in this important case?

Here are some answers from the FAQS page from the CAPCA website:

“In order to vindicate the rights of these children [and to protect the rights of all students in the California public school system], Plaintiffs’ legal team and experts require access to information about [all] students in the state of California…so that they can pull a representative sample of the California student population…so that they can look at metrics, such as whether a disproportionate number of certain ethnicities receive certain services….Our statisticians need information from 2008 to show that the examples we have are not random.  These incidents have been repeating themselves, at least since 2008.”

When I asked others about the importance of this case, David Tollner, a special education attorney not currently involved in the case told me, “This is a very important lawsuit designed to impress upon CDE the importance of ensuring that school districts throughout the state are properly implementing state and federal laws related to students with special needs.  Historically, CDE has allowed school districts to largely police themselves, leaving thousands of students with disabilities without a proper education.  This lawsuit intends to change the way CDE enforces special education laws so that all students in the state have the opportunity to learn to their ability.”

I believe that all students are entitled to an education that allows them to reach their full potential.   I also believe that my two high-achieving, typical learners will be best served in a system that takes care of every student.  Therefore, I will not be objecting to the release of information to the 10 people evaluating student data.

My hope is that all parents can now make a decision based on the facts and not on fear.  Whatever, you decide please share this article far and wide so that other parents can also make the best, most informed decision concerning this case.

Follow this link to get additional questions answered and to read the CAPCA press release.  http://californiaconcernedparents.org/?page_id=47

If you have already sent in your objection, but now feel differently you could send a redaction before April 1,2016 to the judge via regular mail to:

United States District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller
c/o Clerk of the Court
Robert T. Matsui United States Courthouse
501 I Street, Room 4-200
Sacramento, CA 95814
Attn: Document Filed Under Seal

More on the court case:

http://www.cde.ca.gov/re/di/ws/documents/order2016jan26.pd

This column originally appeared on The Huffington Post.