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Springfield student identities at center of legal fight

A nonprofit that promotes voucher programs has filed a complaint against the Springfield City School District in the Ohio Supreme Court, claiming the district has refused to release student names and addresses to the group, but has given that information to other organizations.

The district, though, contends it’s following privacy laws and protecting its students from receiving misleading information.

School Choice Ohio Inc., based in Columbus, filed the complaint Monday, claiming Springfield and Cincinnati Public Schools violated the law by denying the group’s request for student information.

“Ohio law specifically forbids that kind of discrimination in the release of student information,” said School Choice’s lawyer David Movius. “If you release directory information to some organizations, you have to give it to everyone. You can’t pick and choose.”

Directory information is the only student data school districts are allowed to release to the public without written consent from a parent under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. That can include such details as a student’s name, address, telephone number, email and sports or activities participation, and is commonly used to compile sports rosters, theater playbills, yearbooks and honor rolls.

Both districts denied the group’s public records requests last year, citing policies that restrict what is considered directory information. Cincinnati claims its policy only allows names and participation in sports or activities to be disclosed, but not addresses or phone numbers.

Springfield schools rewrote its policy in early 2013 so that no student information, not even names, is part of the listing.

The change was prompted in large part by previous School Choice mailings to families in the district that the Springfield district believed were misleading, according to Superintendent David Estrop.

“We are trying to protect our own students from false and inaccurate information,” he said.

Estrop spoke about the situation before learning of the litigation’s filing, then referred all questions to the district’s attorneys, who declined to comment.

“What I find interesting about all this, is we copied this idea from a charter school,” Estrop said.

When the district wanted to send out mailers to charter school students letting them know about Springfield’s online school option, it was denied addresses by local charter schools.

“With the voucher and charter schools, all we’ve ever asked for is that we be allowed to compete on a level playing field,” Estrop said.

The school board approved the new policy on June 12, 2013. It states that for current students, “no personally identifiable information contained in the student’s education record shall be designated as ‘directory information.’”

Districts can designate what is directory information, said Hollie Reedy, chief legal counsel for the Ohio School Board Association. She said Springfield isn’t the only district in the state to set stringent directory information restrictions.

“Part of it is based on identity theft concerns,” Reedy said.

But the complaint points out that Springfield city schools released student names and addresses to several local organizations after its policy change, including to the Global Impact STEM Academy and Springfield Christian Youth Ministries. Both organizations sought student contact info so they could inform parents about programs available to their children.

Those organizations have ongoing partnerships with the district, Estrop said, and the new policy allows for student information to be released to certain community partners on a case-by-case basis with his approval.

The district now sends parents a consent form at the beginning of the school year allowing them to either consent to or deny the use of their student’s information at the superintendent’s discretion.

“The district often partners with community leaders, community organizations, and school-related organizations in order to provide educational, health, service, or other nonprofit programs which may provide a benefit to the students,” the consent form says. “It may become necessary to disclose a student’s personally identifiable information to such partnering community leaders or organizations. Due to a change in board policy effective July 1, 2013, the district is required to obtain your permission to allow your child’s information to be disclosed for these purposes.”

School Choice’s mission, according to its website, is to educate parents on their options and advocate for the expansion of school choices. It promotes alternative options to public school districts including magnet, charter, voucher and online schools, but isn’t associated with any specific charter schools.

The group reaches out to parents by mail, phone, email and social media, according to its lawyer. It sends public records requests to every school district statewide to obtain that contact information, Movius said.

“They’re playing defense,” he said of the school districts that denied the requests. “They don’t want parents to know their options.”

The Springfield and Cincinnati districts have 21 days from receipt of the complaint to respond. The Supreme Court will then decide whether to dismiss the complaint or issue a writ compelling the districts to act.

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