New York City parents sue state over data-privacy concerns

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ALBANY—A dozen New York City parents are asking the state Supreme Court to block the state Education Department from releasing student information to a data integration company, arguing that providing the information would violate privacy laws.

As part of the federal grant program Race To The Top, through which New York won $700 million in 2010, the state contracted with inBloom, Inc., which will use “demographic, enrollment, attendance, behavior, course performance and state and formative assessment information” to develop individualized technological tools for the classroom, according to the state. The database will also allow teachers and parents to compare students to others throughout the state.

By the end of October, school districts were supposed to choose one of three “data dashboard” companies to create local databases. Some districts decided instead to opt out of the federal grant money rather than upload their information into the local databases, but the state has said they will upload those districts' data into the statewide database anyway.

The lawsuit, which the parents plan to file Wednesday, names the Education Department as well as its leaders, education commissioner John King and the Board of Regents.

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“This is a proceeding to halt the unnecessary and unprecedented mass disclosure of the records and personal information of millions of New York State school children by the New York State Department of Education without the consent of their parents or guardians,” according to the preliminary statement.

The parents' attorneys argued in the statement that the release of information violates the state's Personal Privacy Protection Law, which prohibits government agencies from disclosing personal information without voluntary written consent.

A spokesman for the Education Department said he could not comment on pending litigation. Officials have argued that student data would be aggressively protected and not used for commercial purposes.

Karen Sprowal, a petitioner whose son is in fifth grade in a New York City public school, said in a statement that she's been “unable to rest easy” since learning about the state's plans to share information with inBloom.

She's worried that information about her son, who has special needs, might get into the wrong hands and hinder his ability to get into college or succeed in a job in the future.

“Up to now, his confidential records have been protected by his principal, the school’s nurse and psychologist, but now the state intends to provide this highly private information to vendors, without consulting me or asking for my permission,” she said. “Commissioner King has shown a dismissive attitude towards the concerns of parents and indifference to the dangers facing my son and more than three million other children enrolled in the state’s public schools.”

Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters,an advocacy group who has spearheaded the opposition to the state's sharing of students data, urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo to call on King to "halt … this unethical and dangerous plan.”

Cuomo's office did not immediately offer a comment. The governor does not have direct authority over the Education Department, which is controlled by the Board of Regents.

“Commissioner King has ignored the protests of thousands of parents who have urged him to drop this plan and begged him to protect their children’s highly sensitive information,” Haimson said. “They have been joined by a growing chorus of school board members and superintendents throughout the state who say that his data-sharing plan is not only unnecessary, it poses huge and unprecedented risks.”