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Saturday, Sep 23, 2017
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Student privacy issues discussed in Pasco

LAND O' LAKES - Pasco County School Board members say they want to share more information with the public when cases arise such as a recent one in which a River Ridge High student threatened to kill his teacher, an assistant principal and fellow students. District staff members and the school board attorney, though, say laws on student privacy don't make sharing information that easy. That clearly frustrated board members who discussed the topic at last week's board meeting, especially since schools sometimes make automated telephone calls or send mass letters to parents on less serious subjects. Board member Allen Altman said that "it does seem like sometimes we send a letter home because Johnny stubbed his toe, and yet we have incidents that send parents over the edge" and don't release any information.
The River Ridge High incident was brought to the attention of school board members a few weeks after a special education student reportedly acted up in class, then threatened to shoot everyone in the class when his teacher and an assistant principal tried to calm him down. Board members began to receive phone calls and emails, and the case went at least somewhat public at the April 17 school board meeting when two parents and a student complained that the student had been allowed to return to school. School officials insist everything possible has been done to ensure the safety at the school, but they also said they can't provide details because of student-privacy laws. Altman was skeptical that was the case. He said at the Tuesday board meeting that he had researched the law and what other districts do. He said he also talked with a state official in Tallahassee who told him the only restriction was that the district could not release information that would identify the student, such as the student's name, his parents' names or his Social Security number. "It appears there is much more information that could be provided to our parents and staff," Altman said. The district's reluctance to reveal details "causes false rumors and allegations that stir up" parents and staff, he said. Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said it's true that the law says as long as the district doesn't identify the student "we are good." "But nothing is ever that simple," he said. The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act includes a provision that says personally identifiable information is more than just information that directly identifies the student, Alfonso said. It also includes any information that, alone or in combination with other information, would allow a reasonable person in the community to figure out who the student is. Even during their discussion, board members, district staff members and Alfonso tiptoed around revealing too many details of the River Ridge High case. That caused board frustration, too. "It's really hard to have a conversation about something you are not allowed to talk about," board member Alison Crumbley said.

rblair@tampatrib.com (813) 371-1853

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