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Thursday, July 23, 2015

State: Tewksbury Schools Must Train After Data Release

From The Lowell Sun

By Chelsea Feinstein
cfeinstein@lowellsun.com

July 22, 2015

The Tewksbury Public Schools were out of compliance with state law when the district inadvertently released confidential student data earlier this year, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has found.

In a letter dated June 18 and presented to the School Committee last week, representatives of DESE wrote that the district must provide training to all district staff before the beginning of the upcoming school year. School Committee participation is optional.

In addition, the district is required to submit a copy of the training agenda and signed attendance sheets to the DESE, along with a copy of the district's policies and procedures.

"The department's review of the case documentation, including a review of the information that was posted on the district's website in March 2015, shows information that could have enabled a person who does not have personal knowledge about the students to make a reasoned identification of a particular student," the letter says. "The combination of all types of information made public which students were placed out of district because of their special education status."

In its defense, the district had argued that the release was unintentional, and that those without knowledge of the situation would be unable to identify students with reasonable certainty.

The data was released in March in a School Committee informational packet that was posted on the district's website.

Though it did not feature student names, it included several identifying factors for special-education students with out-of-district placements, including students' grade levels, schools and Individualized Education Program information. It also included a ranking of parents based on how "cooperative" they were.

Superintendent John O'Connor apologized after the release and said it was unintentional.

The release of data prompted then-School Committee member Lisa Puccia to resign in April. Puccia's child was among those whose data was released, and she said she did not believe she could appropriately defend her child while serving on the committee.

School Committee Chairwoman Krissy Polimeno said she thought the finding was fair.

"It was a fair assessment and I think the recommendation from DESE to provide sensitivity training is appropriate," she said.

She said it is likely that some of the School Committee members would sit in on the training, though probably not all would.

Polimeno also said the district is planning other measures to rebuild trust between officials and the community, including a public forum in the fall for officials to hear from parents.

O'Connor said the mandated trainings are being scheduled for some time in August.

"I certainly recognize the DESE concerns regarding the release of confidential information," O'Connor said. "We are taking their response seriously and we plan on conducting some training with our staff over the summer."

The complaint was filed by Ellen Chambers, a special-education advocate who lives in Pepperell. Chambers is the founder of special-education nonprofit SPEDWatch, and she said she files complaints when she sees violations of special-education law in Massachusetts.

"Nobody else seemed to be stepping forward to file a complaint, and that was the only way in which we could trigger Department of Education involvement in the matter," Chambers said.

"Just because the rights of children in Tewksbury are being violated but not those in Pepperell, that doesn't mean that someone shouldn't stand up and say, 'Wait a minute, that's not right,' " she added.

She said the training session will likely do little to prevent the situation from happening again, and said she'd like to see an independent investigator review the department's procedures.

Findings on the Release of Data

Key findings by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on the Tewksbury Public Schools' release of confidential student data earlier this year:
  • DESE found the Tewksbury school district out of compliance with state law.
  • DESE determined that the released data would enable someone without knowledge of the situation to identify the students involved.
  • District must provide training to all staff on how to ensure confidentiality prior to the start of 2015-16 school year.
  • District must submit to the state a signed copy of training agenda, signed attendance sheets and a copy of its policies and procedures.
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Read our April 7th post about this breach of confidentiality HERE.

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