Ohio Monitoring Program Seen Violating Privacy Laws

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Ohio's efforts to monitor education reform by asking school systems to gather in-depth information on individual students could lead to violations of privacy laws, several local superintendents said last week.

As the state education department works to put into final form rules for operating its Education Management Information System, several superintendents and at least one legislator have voiced objections to EMIS requests to collect information on individual students related to pregnancy, citizenship status, family problems, disciplinary records, and other areas.

"The collection of data mandated by EMIS is in violation of state and federal laws," asserted a recent letter to Ohio legislators signed by superintendents and other school officials from more than two dozen districts.

"Information mandated will be difficult to collect because parents may refuse to provide it, thus making its reliability questionable," the letter said.

"Those parents who have been informed," the letter said, "have, without exception, voiced their outrage and dismay at the loss of privacy and intrusive nature of the requested data." A 1989 law required the department to develop a system to monitor student performance and school-district needs, for the stated purpose of better accountability and improved education.

The EMIS is designed to gather information on students, staff, programs, services, and costs in such detail that it can be used to determine the costs of specific programs and their relation to performance. Districts are to begin gathering information in July, and the department is required to report specific data from EMIS to the legislature and school districts by late fall of 1992. Local districts are being asked to identify data for each student by his or her Social Security number or a state-assigned number, and have he option of identifying each student by name. The information is then to be sent to regional centers, jointly operated by several school districts, where it will be compiled into aggregate data before being sent to the state.

Focus on Achievement

A draft of EMIS guidelines for local districts--which Matthew C. Cohen, director of EMIS, described as unlikely to be significantly altered--directs district officials to gather information on individual students that deals mostly with edu cational status and achievement.

District officials also are being asked, however, to record:

The reason a given student was expelled, with reporting options including behavioral problems, false alarms or bomb threats, fighting and violence, and use or possession of drugs or alcohol.

The reason for a student being absent during a given sample period, including personal illness, ill ness in the family, or quarantine of the home.

Citizenship status, and whether a student was admitted from another country.

The reason a student was truant during a given period, with reporting options including pregnancy, alcohol- or drug-abuse problems, failing grades, family hardship, unverified medical reasons, or placement in an institution.

Whether a student is homeless and lives in a privately operated shelter, a public facility, or with relatives or friends.

The designated information-acquisition sites must submit for state approval policies to keep their infor mation secure. They also are prohibited from giving the state information on individual students, and must bond their personnel against unauthorized use of EMIS data.

"The information goes from one computer to another, and the information is not public," said Robert L. Moore, an assistant state superintendent.

"The student-privacy law is not intended for state agencies not to have access to information," Mr. Moore said. "It is intended for the student information not to be re leased to the general public without prior approval of the parents."

Security Breaches Feared

But several superintendents in terviewed last week expressed fears that the security of information gathered at regional acquisition sites would be breached by computer "hackers" or site employees.

"When you start talking about why youngsters are disciplined, and someone has wrong-keyed 'truancy' and it says 'drugs,' we have no way of checking that. It would go in," said Russell L. Sammons, superin tendent of the Northwest Local school District outside Cincinnati. "When the superintendents start sending these surveys out to the parents, then you are going to hear of the parents being upset," said Richard A. Denoyer, superintendent of the Princeton City School District.

Mr. Denoyer added that his district now collects less than half the information requested by EMIS, and he warned that resistance from parents is likely to impede reliable collection of the rest.

Mr. Cohen of EMIS asserted, however, that many districts currently can gather such information through social-service agencies, and that districts will not have to contact parents to gather data.

Representative Dale N. Van Vyven, a member of a legislative panel overseeing executive-agency regulations, argued that school districts could go to court and have the infor mation-gathering regulations struck down. But Mr. Cohen countered that several districts already have looked into the legality of the EMIS program and determined that it does not violate privacy laws.

Bernard L. Dunnan, director of leg islative services for the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, last week said he had not heard members of his organization raise privacy issues in connection with EMIS.

He noted, however, that several have questioned the time and costs associated with gathering the data and whether the new information will be meaningful.

Vol. 10, Issue 27

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