SETRA Should Remain Stalled
School administrators suspended a five-year-old Colorado girl from kindergarten for a day when she brought a clear plastic bubble gun to school. The Brighton, Colorado zero-tolerance policy prohibits “carrying, using, actively displaying or threatening with the use of a firearm facsimile that could reasonably be mistaken for an actual firearm on district property.” The child’s mother got a call to pick her up from Southeast Elementary School and was told that the infraction will be on her daughter’s permanent record. The mother is worried that “it’s always going to be lingering there in her school file.” (Washington Post, 5-19-16)
Recent years have seen a precipitous increase in the amount of data collected and stored on all students in public schools. The information about them includes any disciplinary actions. Parents often aren’t allowed access to the records and wouldn’t know if errors are included.
In the case of the Brighton, Colorado kindergarten student, her record could indicate she brought a weapon to school, although it was really a $5 toy. Her parents might not know and wouldn’t be able to make any correction or notation. It is their right to make certain that their daughter’s records reflect that the “gun” in question was a toy bubble gun.
A bill to increase already intrusive data collection is currently stalled in Congress. The Senate passed the Strengthening Education Through Research Act (SETRA) by unanimous consent last December. This reauthorization of funding for education research and data collection by the Institute for Education Sciences was expected to sail through the Congress, just like the (fairly disastrous) ESSA law passed last December.
Thanks to outspoken privacy advocates and concerned parents, SETRA (HR-5) is not moving through the House. A revision of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which formerly protected student privacy but was drastically weakened by the Obama administration, also seems to be going nowhere. (Education Week, 5-16-16)
A summary of FERPA law at the Department of Education website says, “Generally, schools must have written permission from the parent or eligible student in order to release any information from a student’s education record.” The next sentence says, “However, FERPA allows schools to disclose those records, without consent, to the following parties or under the following conditions. . . .” In recent years, at far too many schools, those conditions for exceptions essentially amount to: “We will give student records to anyone we wish, for whatever reason we choose.” The Department of Education states that parents have a right to review student records and can try to get them corrected when errors occur. But in practice, that often isn’t the case.
Jane Robbins and Emmett McGroarty, senior fellows at the American Principles Project, warn that a November of 2015 congressional hearing “revealed that the U.S. Department of Education’s data security is essentially nonexistent.” Their concern over SETRA is heightened by the bill’s call for social and emotional testing, which amounts to “analyzing every child’s psyche,” and then keeping that data on file. (Townhall.com, 4-15-16)
Until FERPA is strengthened and security measures are improved, SETRA should remain stalled. The social and emotional testing and data collection increases that are currently included in SETRA should be eliminated.
Until parents are given control over data collected about their children, given full access to their children’s records, and unless schools can better control who sees the data, no student data law should be passed by any governmental entity.