Crossing the Fine Line: Privacy vs. Finding Vulnerable Kids

There’s so much happening in the news right now with cyber-security, hacking, democracy, political intrigue, and seismic shifts in leadership for our educational systems. I get a headache just trying to stay positive. There’s a lot of negativity in the talk I’m hearing in the teacher’s lunch rooms these days. The best advice is to stay focused on the kids; at least it’s working for me.

We face a dilemma around the serious responsibility we have for protecting our students’ privacy and the legal rights of children who have disabling conditions. Add to that, the need to find students who get lost in the shuffle, like Special Ed kids whose native language is not English, and students who are transient, etc. Add to that, immigrant children whose families are literally in hiding as our leaders lurch toward a system of immigration policy reform. Newcomers need to be educated too, and our responsibility to those children needs to be better defined.

Here’s a scenario that’s fairly common. We'll call her Selena. Selena is currently in a regular education setting in a large urban elementary school. The district could be Boston, Philadelphia, New York, it doesn't matter. What I'm going to describe is happening everywhere.
Selena is now in second grade; she's shy, quiet, and causes no problems in the classroom. Her teacher has noticed she rarely responds to questions, never contributes in class and has been absent for every large-scale reading evaluation the district has administered. You have no idea what her reading levels are. You went to the office this week to look at her school records, to learn more about her. There are no school records for Selena. You learn from the Principal that Selena first appeared "on our doorstep" in the middle of first grade. There is no social services file, efforts to contact her parents to establish regular communication have failed, and there is no address of record. Notes sent in her book bag (more like a paper sack), are never returned or acknowledged by a parent or guardian. Selena had to stay behind for your last school outing because you couldn’t get parent permissions.

Lately, when she arrives at school, her clothes are dirty. A smudge on her arm may be dirt, but you suspect it's a bruise. Today's the day you're going to get to the bottom of the "Selena issue", right? However, other things get in the way, a boy from a neighboring classroom threw a tantrum that has disrupted every class on the floor and the Principal is holding a special meeting to come up with an RTI plan.

The truth is, you're not even sure if this is a case for a SPED referral; you don't have any test data to support one. Here's the point at which you can turn this around; and you must, because you are legally responsible to report suspected abuse. Someone needs to start collecting hard data on this student.

Just when you're ready to walk Selena home from school to speak to her Mom, she fails to come to school at all. She has vanished off the radar, and you have no idea where she went. You’ve alerted the main office, all you can do is hope her next school follows up with her paperwork.

Some of the problems lie with the transferability of student records. As a student moves through schools, there is a law called FERPA that monitors the confidentiality of all student records. The law is intended to protect family privacy but it sometimes causes records to be lost in a sea of red tape. If there are no parents in attendance to be proactive on behalf of their children, it's even hard to know who they are. Immigration policies and loopholes are adding to the problems. In the U.S., if a student shows up at school, we are required to admit and serve all students. Language issues make the problem more complex. A new climate around immigration will only make the environment seem more hostile to children; we need to be on guard to protect them.

Selena is now out of your reach, and you have so much to do with your own students. School districts with "Pupil Personnel" offices are understaffed and underfunded. A kind of lethargy has grown in other social service agencies that are charged with tracking the kids in foster care. So, if you don't even know where Selena is, how do you know if she has parents in her life, or if she can be tracked through social services? The Pupil Personnel office has no idea, because they never received transfer records for her in the first place.

I'm just raising these issues again now, because of the news on the immigration front. It seems that with the Internet, there should be better solutions. Fingerprinting on the first day of school, or retinal scans or some other indelible ID could be set up to reach into a central database of demographics. Plastic ID cards with barcodes are one idea, but they become lost. But here comes FERPA, privacy rights.......

Here are some great discussions on this subject.
Academic CracksNo Records Into AdulthoodPPRA - Protection of Pupil RightsHomeless Children EducationEducation of Undocumented ImmigrantsImmigrant Right to EducationEqual Protection for Undocumented Immigrants - Plyler vs. Doe               

Let's talk about this, leave a message below.

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