Student Info Handed Over
March 12, 2007 11:39 AM   Subscribe

So Much for Privacy The Columbus, Ohio, Dispatch, has been asking for, and receiving, access to school databases that include such information as children's names, telephone numbers, ages, birth dates, addresses, grade levels and assigned schools. No one seemed concerned until Chris Valentine, president of the Dublin school district board of education, sent e-mails home to parents. The Dublin News wrote about it; the Dispatch editor Benjamin Marrison defended the request this way: "How ironic that during Sunshine Week, an annual reminder of Americans' rights to public records, controversy swirls in Dublin over the release of such records." And Doug Clifton, former editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, weighed in.
posted by etaoin (22 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
A year ago, in celebration of “Sunshine Week,” the PD ran a story advising readers that Ohio law allows citizens access to the combination to the safe in the mayor’s office, the pay-per-view TV bill at the firehouse and the playbooks of public-school sports teams.

I need to make some phone calls...

"How ironic that during Sunshine Week, an annual reminder of Americans' rights to public records, controversy swirls in Dublin over the release of such records."

Raised in a journalism department, I'm usually on the side of sunshine laws, but this broad request from the Dispatch seems more based out of laziness and hubris on their part than a strive for freedom of information.

For example...
Marrison said the Dispatch will use the records to verify facts, such as name spellings, and to contact parents after incidents in the schools.
posted by drezdn at 11:54 AM on March 12, 2007

I remember reading this editorial in the Dispatch yesterday morning.

Notice Mr. Marrison points out the parents could opt out, via the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, of having their children's data become publicly available. (I think I'd prefer that my son's date of birth wasn't just floatin' around out there any more than it already is.) Said parents chose not to but are apparently telling the Dispatch after the fact they shouldn't have the info, and the Dispatch's position is "we don't want to start throwing away data we've gotten pubicly just because it makes somebody uncomfortable that they have it."

Sounds almost like an excuse to generate a little controversy and maybe sell an extra paper or two, but I'm turning out to be more like my old man each day with this cynicism thing.
posted by pax digita at 12:00 PM on March 12, 2007

Oops...make that "...uncomfortable that we have it." Guess who shouldn't be allowed within a country mile of a copyediting desk....
posted by pax digita at 12:02 PM on March 12, 2007

My understanding of that Dublin News story is that parents weren't told that the information was being released until after it had been handed over, which is pretty creepy.
posted by etaoin at 12:06 PM on March 12, 2007

"Their motives don’t have to be sinister for their actions to have negative consequences,” she said. “I just think if someone’s writing a story, they can fact-check the old fashioned way."

She's right. This is a horrible idea, because there is no way to know if the Paper's database is secure. An employee could sneak the data out on a memory stick and no one would be the wiser. a "multilayered password" system might not mean anything.
posted by delmoi at 12:10 PM on March 12, 2007

I would think a public records request for the police records of every Dispatch employee is in order. Specifically, records related to identity theft and sexual crimes, now that they have access to the personal data of these minors.

I'm all for sunshine laws, but there does have to be a compelling public interest. Policy meeting? Sure. The home phone number and address of that attractive city employee? Does that sound like a good idea to anyone?
posted by stevis23 at 12:25 PM on March 12, 2007

Again: If you're a parent who didn't pay attention to or understand FERPA opt-out, at the very least, the recruiters will know when your little darling is turning 18 and no longer requires parental permission to sign on the line. And yeah, if it's considered a public record, who the heck knows where else that date of birth and home address will be bouncing around -- Chester Chester Child Molester, let's figure out which streets little Susie is likely to cross on her way home from East High School.
posted by pax digita at 12:43 PM on March 12, 2007

Oh, pshaw. If the Dispatch didn't have that school data, how could they murder every firstborn male as an offering to their dark god, Yog Shoggoth? Now we shall all be consumed by the Great Old Ones who were not appeased with blood sacrifice. Way to go, librulls.
posted by solistrato at 12:43 PM on March 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

Out here we proudly call it the Columbus Discharge.
posted by hal9k at 1:23 PM on March 12, 2007

I don't see this as a privacy issue. Newspapers, for years, have had access to this kind of data. They work on the legal side, and don't disclose the names of each and every person involved in every school incident. The laws are the same in Europe. The Granuiad has access to most school records.
posted by parmanparman at 2:13 PM on March 12, 2007

I don't understand why it makes any sense at all for the press to have acess to this data, or why it is the school's right to hand it over unless parents opt out.

Information about government functions, yes - for example, although it might make me uncomfortable, I think it's reasonable that the equivalent information about me, a teacher, be out there like this, since I'm an employee of the government.

But how is the state handing over private information about students any different than the state, say, handing over your tax returns to the press? Or having the state release to the press every transaction you've ever had at the RMV? Is there no idea of the citizen having some expectation of privacy as the consumer of state services?

Probably not, I know. But I think there should be. It seems a misuse of state power for the government to hand over all information about citizens' interaction with government to private entities. Doubly so when we're talking about children, who must rely on parents to give or withhold consent.
posted by Chanther at 2:27 PM on March 12, 2007

Well, this has nothing to do with the government handing over all information about students in its possession--only directory-type information.

Also, as the Dublin article points out in the last paragraph, parents are notified of their right to opt out of having their children's information included in the database. It would be useful to know what the form looked like, how prominent and understandable the warning was, etc.
posted by chinston at 2:40 PM on March 12, 2007

Look, the folks at the Columbus, Ohio, Dispatch just want to molest children. It’s not a big deal. They’d rather do it safely and securely. They know where you live. They know how old your child is and other data. Clearly then they could pick and choose - perhaps a time when you leave your elementary school aged child at home alone - when to molest them. And this isn’t like some filthy wino putting his sticky fingers on your child’s undergarments, it’s a journalist. They don’t carry the venereal disease of the weak minded lower classes or tradesmen. Certainly knowing the childs age they could properly direct the pedophile with whichever age fixation to the proper child. And perhaps seduce the child when he or she answers the telephone unattended - as they have this information - not, like some more unsavory types, by luring them into the bushes or some such lurid affair. Or perhaps, as they know the childs name and age, they could visit your child’s school and molest them there. The kindly teachers and staff would certainly turn your child over to anyone who possessed such sensitive information. And what typically would take a member of the Columbus, Ohio, Dispatch agonizing minutes on the phone to gather he can now reference at his leisure giving him that much more time to stalk and surveil your child with the camera equipment in his van.

I don’t see any compelling reason. On the other hand - why not? Given a freedom of information request - your name is on it, the paper’s name is on it, why deny a legitimate news organization access? This isn’t private information. This is collated public information. There is no instance where some child molester is going to have greater access to kids because of this. Belay that - I can see no instance. Perhaps I’m missing something, but - investigative work is 90% talking to people and footwork. If we’re taking this as analogous how is the aforementioned Chester Childmolester going to contact any given child from this information unless he’s already in large part aware of the target? In which case where the hell are the crossing guards, bus drivers, other staff and neighborhood watch looking out for the dark van parked across the street from the school all day following some kid down the block? Or following the bus?
Why can’t he look up the street address himself and see who lives there? Do these people have private numbers/addresses? Given that most kids are molested by someone they know well - an uncle, etc. - I don’t see the threat enhancement here.

But - it does sound lazy tho. Why wouldn’t you just call as you need it?
So, ok - the public school is defacto guardian for the kids while they’re there - why not a blanket withholding of consent? Covers all the bases. You don’t have to eliminate this as public information, but neither can you get full access to it without consent from the school district. Everybody’s happy. (Except for the evil child stalking folks at the Columbus, Ohio, Dispatch)

“The home phone number and address of that attractive city employee? Does that sound like a good idea to anyone?” -posted by stevis23

Uh, yeah. It does. Why should Joe Public employee be unavailable to the press? I really like to know what’s going on with my tax money.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:02 PM on March 12, 2007

Just takes 1 kid to be touched here and the Dispatch is history.

Let's see, name, gender, address, phone numbers, oh sure that's minors, what could EVER happen?
posted by Freedomboy at 3:12 PM on March 12, 2007

Privacy in the USA? I think not.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:26 PM on March 12, 2007

parmanparman - I'd be grateful if you could give a bit more detail about what you say about the law round this and the Guardian having access to school records. I work with child data (in the UK) and there are some really tight rules around sharing things - to the point where local authorities have only recently, as a result of legislation in the Children Bill, been legally able to share identifying information on some groups of children with the DfES. So I'm interested in quite what it means when you say the Guardian has access to school records.
posted by paduasoy at 4:02 PM on March 12, 2007

A point not mentioned here is the comment the idiot made about the military having access to that information as well. That's true, but you or your child can request that information not be shared.

Every one of you with children in school need to inform the school that the information is not to be released, and that includes releasing it to military recruiters.. Make that call tomorrow! You'll probably have to fill out a form as that tomorrow!
posted by HuronBob at 4:27 PM on March 12, 2007

HuronBob writes "A point not mentioned here is the comment the idiot made about the military having access to that information as well. That's true, but you or your child can request that information not be shared."

Are you sure about that? The Department of Education says here, "The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, P.L. 107-110 (Jan. 8, 2002), addresses the disclosure of directory-type information (students' names, addresses, and telephone listings) to military recruiters. Congress included similar language in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2002. Both laws, with some exceptions, require schools to provide directory-type information to military recruiters who request it." You can tell you school not to release your directory information to the general public, but it sounds like the military can get it regardless.
posted by chinston at 5:12 PM on March 12, 2007

The justification from the Dispatch editor is pretty weak. They want the info so they can get the names right? Shouldn't you ask for that when you're doing the reporting? It smacks of laziness

And this quote:
"A newspaper cannot destroy public records simply because their availability makes some people uncomfortable."

does a nice job of not recognizing the issues. Parents don't want strangers having their kids info. They especially don't finding out about it after the fact. The paper should have put a notice in an edition or in a blog saying what they were doing and why. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:29 PM on March 12, 2007

Yeah. It's amazing the way the government happily gives out information that's essentially useless to journalists and scares the public-- but won't let them have information that might help.

There's no need for journalists to have access to all students names and identifying details-- if you are worried about spelling names right, ask the kid and the parent twice and get their phone numbers then. There are also these things called yearbooks and phone books and the internet.

OTOH, there is certainly sometimes a need for journalists to get access to information about stuff like child abuse allegations and foster care decision-making that is highly sensitive and that the government hides behind "confidentiality" in order to protect incompetent, corrupt or dangerous workers. For example, a child and the parent can ask for the information to be given to a reporter-- and the agency can refuse on grounds of the child's alleged confidentiality.

So, it's important to not throw the sunshine out with the clouds ...
posted by Maias at 5:46 PM on March 12, 2007

"How ironic that during Sunshine Week, an annual reminder of Americans' rights to public records, controversy swirls in Dublin over the release of such records."

You mean, "How ironic that during a period when the bungling by large organizations of database records on a variety of citizens has made national news again and again, the Columbus Dispatch has decided - for reasons that are trivial at best - to inflame public opinion against sunshine laws."

What an utterly moronic move by the Dispatch. Those are some pretty dumb folks at the top over there, definitely.
posted by mediareport at 7:38 PM on March 12, 2007

"Are you sure about that?"

yep, any student can opt out. Ask your school for the form or do a quick search on the net, info is everywhere, but not well distributed in many areas.
posted by HuronBob at 4:14 AM on March 13, 2007

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