February 28, 2020
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Student privacy bill spurs debate in Augusta

AUGUSTA, Maine — Students, parents and school administrators all told lawmakers the Department of Education should stop collecting the names of students disciplined by schools and keeping them in a database, but Commissioner Susan Gendron warned that could jeopardize all federal funds for education that come to the state.

“If we don’t comply with reporting requirements as the federal government specifies, we can in fact be required to return all and any federal dollars,” she told lawmakers. “IDEA [Individuals with Educational Disabilities Act] alone is $50 million a year.”

Gendron said that while the state is collecting the disciplinary information, it reports the information only as aggregate data without the students’ identification numbers. She said individual data are confidential by law and protected from release.

“The DOE has no compelling need to know this information that would override the rights of our students and their families,” said Patricia Hopkins, superintendent of Camden area schools. “The DOE has a data collection concern that it has chosen to solve at the expense of student privacy instead of protecting that privacy.”

She and other speakers argued there is no assurance that the department can keep the information confidential once it is collected. She said there have been frequent and well-publicized reports of data breaches at major corporations and at the federal government.

“They are trying to put a lot of security measures on this but even with the top security on this information it can still be accessed, it can still be breached,” said Jason Hamilton, a senior at Hampden Academy. “I just don’t think this is right.”

He said it does not seem fair that if he committed a crime as a juvenile, that record is not kept after he turns 18, but a record of a suspension for a playground fight in elementary school would be in a Department of Education database. He was one of several students testifying in support of banning the collection of names as part of the Department of Education database.

“The simplest terms I can put this in is when I had to set down and make a decision about putting students’ names in, it just felt dirty to me,” said Scott McFarland, principal of Mount Desert Elementary School in Northeast Harbor. “This just stinks, it is not right and it is not acceptable to me.”

The Maine School Management Association and the Maine School Boards Association also supported the measure.

Commissioner Gendron, the only opponent to the bill, defended the collection of the information as required by several federal laws, but her assertion was challenged by Jon Paterson, a Portland attorney representing the Maine Civil Liberties Union at the hearing.

“In my personal review of the federal laws that were cited by the department, there is no requirement in any of these federal laws that requires the Department of Education to collect that information,” he said.

In fact, Paterson said, some of the federal laws cited by department, such as the No Child Left Behind Act, specifically prohibit collection of information that names an individual.

“It says that reporting schools shall not identify victims of crimes or persons accused of crimes,” he said. “In the Individuals with Educational Disabilities Act, the state is prohibited from collecting information that would disclose personally identifiable information about individual children.”

The measure is sponsored by Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, co-chair of the committee. The bill now will be considered at a workshop of the committee, scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. The bill then will go before the full Legislature with the recommendation of the panel whether it should be passed or needs to be amended.

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