As reported in The Advocate, the Louisiana Department of Education, or LDOE, has sought the guidance of a state court in order to balance transparency in government and the protection of children.
It is a crime in our state for education officials to haphazardly share the identities of students with outside individuals or organizations.
At the same time, under public records laws, the government is obligated to produce documents when members of the public request them.
So what happens when a document created by the LDOE — even if it doesn’t contain a single student’s name — includes enough numeric data for a clever adult to figure out the grades, disabilities, test scores or behavioral histories of an individual child?
Say, for example, an online bully requests a document showing the test scores of students in each grade level in each school in his hometown. The document shows that at one school, 100 percent of students within the sixth grade did not pass the test. The bully now knows just enough to send hurtful messages on Facebook or Instagram to every sixth-grader he can identify, ridiculing them for their test scores.
Or say that a court has removed the custody rights of an abusive parent, who thus no longer has access to the child’s academic records. Knowing that his son is the only student of his racial group in the eighth grade taking algebra, the parent requests a document from the state showing algebra test results for each racial group and grade level at his son’s middle school.
The U.S. Department of Education, citing federal laws, recently sent the LDOE a directive to “suppress” all information that could be used to identify individual students. Under this directive, the state cannot publicly report small numbers of students in a document, as would happen in the above scenarios.
The federal directive protects students. But it also contradicts state public records laws that require the government to produce documents verbatim when requested.
As reported Sunday in The Advocate, the LDOE has received requests for documents that include the number of students in all schools, racial groups, test performance levels and grade levels. Sometimes the numbers in these categories are small, potentially revealing student identities, and exposing a conflict between Louisiana’s public records law and laws meant to protect children’s privacy rights.
The LDOE has thus requested a “declaratory judgment,” seeking guidance from a state court to resolve the conflict.
The prevalence of electronic data today presents challenges not imagined when the Legislature enacted the public records law. Asking a court for guidance is warranted in order to maintain a balance between transparency in government and the protection of children in our day and age.
Louisiana superintendent of education