What’s Up in Holyoke? Privacy, Freedom of Speech, and Due Process under Fire

September 12, 2014 at 10:30 AM Leave a comment

A teacher has been fired for speaking out against district administrators in Holyoke. Or at least the Commonwealth of Massachusetts thinks there is probable cause to investigate. His offense? Revealing that students’ names and test scores were being exposed on a data wall…then releasing the PowerPoint presentation in which teachers were directly instructed to include the students’ names. Opportunity, action, and intent on the part of the school district to violate the privacy of the children are in evidence.

Our children are our future. And our schools are on the front lines teaching those children about democracy, civil liberties, and citizenship. Unfortunately, in the Holyoke case, the teacher’s rights to freedom of speech and due process appear to have been flagrantly violated. In addition, the children’s rights to privacy have been encroached upon. Most details of their growth and development are protected from scrutiny in matters ranging from intellect to discipline until they reach legal adulthood at age 18.

Let’s start with the schools and their possession-with-intent-to-distribute of very personal data on children. In the era of Big Data, interpretation of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) already has left parents, guardians, and children vulnerable to a couple of gaps in privacy guarantees. The first is the definition of directory information, which can be distributed without permission; the second is the waiver of prior consent for “…a contractor, consultant, volunteer or other party to whom the school has outsourced institutional services or functions.” In either event, FERPA has a bad nudge.

Parents get disclosure of policies or contractual arrangements with a brief window for them to prohibit access to their children’s data. It would be far better to offer parents a one-click opt IN if they wanted their children’s privacy rights to be violated, not requirement of an opt OUT action to keep data secure. Passive responses should protect the kids but, in reality, FERPA errs on the side of protecting access to the kids’ privileged information on behalf of public information requests or private consultants who mine data.

Holyoke school officials went the next step to provide the kids’ names and test scores expressly to subject them to intrusive offers of motivation and intervention in public and did so without prior notice. This action also left the students vulnerable to embarrassment or mockery regarding their achievement or lack thereof. When first exposed, the District issued a denial. When cornered, they retaliated against the whistle blower.

The Holyoke school teacher in good standing who led the protest against the inappropriate disclosure of students’ identities and test scores lost his job. Due process for teacher termination had been defined for tenured teachers; however, the teacher in question had not earned his access to those internal protections yet. He needed the Department of Labor Relations to intervene, which they have now done.

As for Freedom of Speech, that may remain in question within the Holyoke Public Schools for some time to come.

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Entry filed under: Data, Student Outcomes, Teacher Effectiveness.

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