Teachers’ Union: Data disclosure threatens student privacy in Hamden

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HARTFORD — The Hamden School District’s disclosure of personally identifiable student data to an education industry group — without the knowledge of parents or students – is a threat to student privacy, according to the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

They say it should be  a “lightning rod” for legislative action on HB 7017, An Act Concerning Student Data Privacy.

“School districts must safeguard children’s privacy, and they should never leave students and families in the dark when it comes to sharing sensitive student data,” said CEA President Sheila Cohen, in a statement released Wednesday.

“The state legislature must not allow corporations to download and take ownership of sensitive and confidential student information for potential commercial use,” she said in the statement. “This is not in the best interests of children, schools, and families.”

According to the CEA, The Connecticut Council for Education Reform, an organization governed by corporate and industry officials, entered into an agreement with Hamden school administrators to secure personally identifiable student records. The agreement entitles CCER to own the student data and share it with subcontractors who have the capacity to commercialize the data. Hamden was also requested to provide CCER school campus maps, square footage of buildings, maximum enrollment allowed in building, location codes for each individual school; grade levels, and secondary course info—such as periods of the day courses meet. This information transfer runs contrary to Connecticut General Statutes Section 1-210(b)(19) which discusses the disclosure of records when there are reasonable grounds to believe disclosure may result in a safety risk.

“The CCER is a nonprofit organization that works to narrow Connecticut’s achievement gap,” according to Nicki Perkins, Director of Communications and Development for the CCER in New Haven. “Our work with districts is designed to help them build up their systems so that they can best support teaching and learning. The project that we did with Hamden is valued at approximately $100,000 and was provided to the district for free.”

“The amount of information CCER received is staggering,” Cohen said in the statement. “According to the agreement, CCER has taken possession of and now owns all student academic information, as well as student identifying codes, demographic and performance information, designations of students with disabilities, students’ Individual Education Plans, their placement status, and detailed information about English Language Learners. Private sector data mining has exploded in many facets of our lives.” Cohen said. “CCER’s data mining has now reached down to our children. The state legislature cannot ignore this problem.”

“We do not collect personally identifiable student data, and we have no plans to do so,” said Perkins. “We encourage districts to take active steps to protect student-level data.”

Cohen also noted that CCER was able to access and take ownership of the student information at no cost — it only promised to provide Hamden with a “District Needs Assessment Report.” According to the agreement, CCER retains ownership of all the raw student data and can use or sell the aggregated data in any way it chooses.

“Under this agreement, Hamden parents and students would lose ownership and control of sensitive personal information,” Cohen said. “This is a clear and present danger to students and families in Hamden and every other public school where similar agreements are proposed — a situation that provides irrefutable evidence that the legislature needs to act to avoid further privacy infringements. Lawmakers must defend and protect our children because data has never been more vulnerable to misuse, abuse, and breach.”

“There are numerous third parties seeking to build databases of student information,” Coehn said. “Some are doing so to sell educational software or other products to school districts. Some are collecting student data and misusing that data to tarnish public schools. The amount of information that can be made available for corporate gain is overwhelming and deeply troubling.”

“Public education has been called a five-hundred billion dollar sector,” said CEA Executive Director Mark Waxenberg. “The Hamden disclosure is a tipping point and a sign of just how far corporate entities will go to encroach on the privacy of our children and endanger their futures. Public education should not be a profit center for Wall Street hedge fund managers and corporate executives.”

“The data collected from Hamden was anonymous, and was collected to provide the district with a free analysis of their resource expenditures. We looked at the way they use their resources, and compared their allocations with those of other districts. This was an effort to help the district to improve its efficiency,” said Perkins. “Even though this is not student data, we still have data protection protocols in place.”

“We have a Memorandum of Understanding that protects the confidentiality of the data that we did collect, so we cannot share or profit from it,” she said. “We retain ownership of the methodology that we use to conduct a free analysis for the district, and the documentation of the analysis itself–which we have nonetheless shared with the district publicly.”

“It is a shame that the CEA is so determined to protect adults and the status quo that it would work against our efforts to make schools better for kids,” said Jeffrey Villar, executive director of CCER. “Worse, the statements released by the CEA are factually incorrect, and they know it. It is completely irresponsible for them to make these false and inflammatory statements. Although this is going to sound harsh, they out to be ashamed of themselves.”

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