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updated: 3/3/2013 7:39 AM

Request for student information stirs FOIA controversy in West Chicago

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A Freedom of Information Act request for student contact information filed during the final month of contract negotiations between West Chicago Elementary District 33 and its teachers union revealed inconsistencies between FOIA regulations and federal laws meant to protect student privacy.

While the FOIA includes an exemption for home addresses, the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act allows "directory" information, such as a student's name, address, telephone number and date and place of birth, to be disclosed without consent as long as yearly notice is provided to parents. That contradiction required District 33 to reply to a FOIA request the teachers union filed Jan. 30 seeking "directory contact information, including names and home addresses, by school, for all District 33 students."

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While the school board says the situation caused concern among parents and sparked a push to change the FOIA law, the union says student contact information isn't what it wanted in the first place.

"The union has absolutely no interest in contacting students," said Tom Terranova an Illinois Education Association staff member who submitted the request on behalf of the District 33 teachers union. "We were looking for ways to communicate more effectively with parents as a larger group. That's what led us to seek parent contact information in January."

Terranova filed the first request Jan. 15, but it was denied. The district said it does not maintain a list of parent contact information -- the list is organized by students instead. So Terranova resubmitted the request Jan. 30, seeking directory contact information for students. The district's lawyers determined it was legally obligated to reply, so officials began notifying parents of the upcoming disclosure.

But Terranova says the district's rhetoric to parents mischaracterized what the union wanted and why it filed the request. A news release the district issued Feb. 5 said the union was seeking student contact information and offered parents a way to ensure their child's name and address would not be released. It says the district received the Jan. 30 FOIA request for student contact information, but does not mention the union's original request for a way to contact parents.

"What we wanted was a way to send information and communicate directly with parents. That's all we ever wanted and the district was well aware of that," Terranova said. "When this was presented in an ominous way, that surprised us."

The Feb. 5 release explains the clause in the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act that allows "directory" information of names, addresses, date and place of birth and a few other facts to be released unless parents notify the district in writing of their objection. District 33 informs parents of this right every year, but the district does not publish a directory; school board member Dave Barclay said parents rarely ask to be removed from the list.

Before replying to the FOIA, the district gave parents a chance to opt out, saying "if any parent does not wish to have their student's 'directory information' publicly released for any reason, please send an email to parenthotline@wego.org."

"Parents don't want the name and address of their students available to anyone," Barclay said.

Interim Superintendent Kathy Wolfe said 720 parents asked for their child or children's names to be removed. So when the union got its reply Feb. 25, the names and addresses of at least 720 of the district's 4,000 students were omitted.

"It was certainly an attempt to prevent us from getting the information we were looking for," Terranova said.

And so, he says, were the board's repeated pleas for the union to drop the request once a three-day strike ended Feb. 6 and a contract was reached.

The union continued pursuing the information so members can mail letters to parents if any future need for direct communication arises, Terranova said.

Barclay said the board may consider a change to its directory policy so a student's information only would be included if his or her parent gives specific permission. Barclay said he has contacted several state lawmakers whose constituents include District 33 residents as well as those on education committees, and he is working with the Illinois Association of School Boards to inform other school leaders of the contradictory overlap in student privacy and FOIA laws.

Ben Schwarm, deputy executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards, said FOIA and federal student privacy laws leave it unclear whether information must be provided in cases like this, so District 33 was smart to follow the advice of its lawyers.

"I think if there is an effort to make this more clear in our state statute, that would probably be prudent, especially given discussions today about school safety and security issues," Schwarm said.

Barclay said parents were concerned not so much that the teachers union was seeking their contact information, but that anyone could be given their child's name and address simply by filing a request for public information.

"Their apprehension is more about the uncertainty," Barclay said.

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