A district judge has ordered the Ohio Department of Education to release student data to a nonprofit organization that is fighting a decades-old class-action lawsuit in federal court.
Parents may object to the release of their student’s information by Sept. 12.
Columbus-based Disability Rights Ohio, which advocates for people with disabilities, filed a lawsuit in the early 1990s to increase state special education funding. As funding mandates have changed over the years, the organization has contended that the changes have been insufficient to guarantee disabled students a free and appropriate education as required by law.
The data to be released covers the 2013-14 school year and includes information on all students, not just those with a disability or special-needs designation.
John Charlton, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the release covers the student identification number, school, grade, race, age and disability category as well as records from the Ohio Achievement Assessments, Ohio Graduation Test, data related to the Third Grade Reading Guarantee and data on student suspensions and expulsions.
Districts provide that information to the state through a system known as the Educational Management Information System.
Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, families of students whose data will be released must be notified and given the opportunity to object. Districts across Lorain County are trying to get the word out to parents. Avon, Amherst, Elyria, Midview, Oberlin and others have posted messages on their websites with links on how parents can file an objection.
Disability Rights Ohio sued the Department of Education for the release of the information, which it said is pertinent to its lawsuit. Judge Michael H. Watson of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio granted the motion in May.
However, he also put in place provisions to protect student privacy.
“Once disclosed, the information is protected by an order of the court, and cannot be used for any purpose other than this litigation,” Watson wrote. “No information will be disclosed beyond the participants in the litigation in a way that allows an individual student to be identified.”
Kerstin Sjoberg-Witt, director of advocacy and assistant executive director for Disability Rights Ohio, said the organization will have consultants familiar with handling sensitive student data study the information.
“The data and any reports from it will be kept confidential and turned over only as a part of our litigation,” she said. “There should be no qualms about the security of the data, as our experts will never know the identity of any specific student.”
Charlton said if a parent files an objection, that does not automatically exempt a student’s data from being released.
“No, the judge will want to see what the objections are before ruling,” he said.
Letters should be sent to Clerk’s Office: Judge Watson’s Docket, U.S. Courthouse, 85 Marconi Boulevard, Columbus, OH 43215. The first page of the letter should include in large or underlined letters: “OBJECTIONS TO DISCLOSURE OF FERPA INFORMATION IN DOE V. STA TE, Case No. 91-464.”
Sjoberg-Witt said the court order sets a deadline of Sept. 29 for the Ohio Department of Education to release the information, but that is subject to change based on the volume of objections received by the court.