Parents petition InBloom contract for student privacy: State undertaking data-sharing program with third-party company

Ana Espinoza, News Editor

School systems normally keep student academic, disciplinary, and medical records under lock and key.   However, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) is currently undertaking a controversial data-sharing program in which student information is stored in a database owned and operated by inBloom, Inc., a private company.

In response, Port Washington parents Ms. Deborah Brooks and Ms. Allison White have recently created a petition entitled “Protect New York State School Children.”  As of Feb. 27 the petition has nearly 5,200 signatures, including those of Principal Mr. Ira Pernick and Superintendent Dr.  Kathleen Mooney. The Board of Education also plans to take action.

The petition states, “NYSED’s actions violate the privacy of New York State’s public and charter school children, as well as those of their parents and legal guardians.  Parents and guardians have the right to decide who has access to confidential information about their children.”

In her Dec.  2013 letter to the District, Dr. Mooney said, “The parental voice demanding assurances that your children’s privacy will be protected is a powerful tool that needs to be heard.”

New York school districts automatically sign up for the inBloom service when signing up for federal Race to the Top funding.  Although Port Washington is not a Race to the Top district, and is therefore not obligated to purchase a parent portal dashboard that requires more extensive student data uploads, NYSED still shares some information with inBloom.

According to the petition, more than 400 data points per Port Washington student will be stored in a data cloud hosted and managed by inBloom.  These data points included names, addresses, academic records, disciplinary records, attendance records, economic information, special education status, family circumstances, and medical records.

“We’re talking about things that students and parents consider highly private,” said Ms. Brooks.

The potential dangers of cloud storage include the release of this personal information by hackers.

“The main question is about the security of this information,” said Mr. Pernick.  “You don’t have to go very far to find breaches in security, like in the Target situation. We can kind of shrug off the Target stuff, even though we shouldn’t, but clearly everybody who promises that they can maintain information can’t.  And now we’re talking about children’s information, and who knows who gets hold of that?”

The information is also potentially available to third-party vendors in the event of a security breach, who have the power to “flood parents with unwarranted solicitations for tutoring and test preparation materials,” according to Dr. Mooney.

Ms. Brooks began researching this issue approximately a year ago, and the final petition drafted by Ms. Brooks and Ms. White asks for the cessation of information transfers to inBloom, the termination of NYSED’s contract with inBloom, the passage of strongly worded legislation pertaining to this issue, the restriction of the number and type of data points NYSED is allowed to solicit from school districts, and the review and handling of financial and emotional costs to students, parents, and taxpayers caused by the inBloom contract.

“I believe that petitions are one way to protest mandates that are unfair and unnecessary,” said Dr. Mooney.  “They also provide politicians and lawmakers with evidence that their constituents are opposed and are making their voice known.”

Legislators hope to delay the implementation of the inBloom data transfer and/or pass legislation allowing districts to “opt in” or “opt out” of the initiative, or both.

Although New York State Regent Kathleen Cashin addressed parent concerns with the inBloom situation at a recent meeting, Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and the Board of Regents have yet to formally vote on the issue.  New York State Commissioner of Education John King and the majority of Regents send their children to private schools that are not required to upload student information to the inBloom database.

The District is working with the Nassau County Council of Superintendents and several parent associations on this issue.

The Board of Education alone has limited power over the issue and plans to comply with the minimum requirements of the state-mandated policy.

The state has agreed to postpone any data transfers until April, so New York students and parents have a window of opportunity to act.

“We encourage students to speak with their parents, friends, and neighbors and to make their opinions known to elected officials,” said Ms. White.

Students over 18 and students who will be 18 by the next election are eligible to sign the petition, which is online at  Ms. White and Ms. Brook also encourage all Schreiber students to get involved using Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets using the hashtags #student, #data, #privacy, #StopinBloom, and #NYSED.  They can also tweet at the Twitter accounts of New York elected officials, including Governor Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) and Commissioner King (@JohnKingNYSED).  Questions about the petition can be emailed to [email protected]

“Every person and student at Schreiber has the responsibility to speak out when they see injustice in the world,” said Ms. White.