security questions

State releases agreement for data system that raised concerns

The ink was barely dry on New York’s agreement with an organization that is building an interstate student data project when parents and advocates raised concerns about it this weekend.

The parents and advocates held a press conference Sunday about a letter that they sent Friday to the state’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch. The letter asked the officials to halt New York’s participation in the Shared Learning Collaborative until the state assures them that student information will be secure.

But the state only finalized its agreement with the SLC, a nonprofit group that aims to help state avoid building duplicative data systems, on Thursday, according to a signed agreement that state officials provided to reporters this weekend. The officials said the terms of the agreement should quell privacy concerns about the system, which each state will use and augment independently.

Some of the parents’ and advocates’ allegations — they suggest in their letter that the state might be preparing to sell student data to for-profit companies — are simply incorrect, according to Ken Wagner, a State Education Department associate commissioner. But he said today that other concerns raised in the letter reflected important questions about privacy and security that the department had previously not answered publicly.

“They were right to raise those issues, but we believe those issues have been addressed in our agreement,” Wagner said.

Norm Siegel, the lawyer representing the parents and advocates, was not available to review the agreement immediately upon its release late Sunday. But Leonie Haimson, a longtime parent activist who spearheaded the complaint, said she was not reassured that student data would be insulated from being used by for-profit companies.

“Nothing in this agreement that would give anyone confidence or lessen anyone’s concern about the potential risk involved,” Haimson said.

New York became one of the first five members of the SLC when it launched last year with funding from the Gates Foundation and other education philanthropies. The organization was created at a time when many states were beginning to create systems to manage student data in new ways, at great expense to their taxpayers. The philanthropies’ goal was to introduce an economy of scale by building a shared platform that each state could use independently.

“Right now these data are being collected; right now these data are being used by teachers, parents and students; and right now they are being provided to private contractors to help them meet those needs. none of that changes,” state officials said today at a briefing for reporters about changes to the state’s testing system. “The change here is that we’re trying to invest in this platform so that we can provide an easier way for districts to spend the money that they are already spending to get a better value.”

State officials today likened the arrangement to that of an iPhone: Multiple users have the same basic operating system, but they can populate the system with their own data — student test scores — and also enhance it with their own apps. Data will never be shared across users, the officials said, but an enhancement that one state develops could become available in the “SLC Data Store.”

Both a non-binding memorandum of understanding signed in April and the more contractual service agreement say repeatedly that the state’s use of the SLC is contingent on complying with privacy rules set in FERPA, the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act. In December, when state education officials briefed Tisch and the Board of Regents on the project, they wrote, “The protection of student privacy is and will remain the priority throughout the development and implementation of the SLC.”

But Haimson said she remained concerned about the participation of for-profit vendors, including Wireless Generation, the education technology company that is leading the SLC’s data system construction. Even if the state does not intend to sell student data, she said, the data will be “in the hands of a private corporation — and the rules are not clear.”

Wireless Generation lost a state contract to create a student data system in 2011 because in part because of revelations about illegal wiretapping conducted by some publications owned by its parent company, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. In August, the state again awarded Wireless Generation a portion of a data contract but said that its portion of the portfolio would focus on delivering curriculum materials to teachers and would not bring the firm anywhere near student data.

Currently, state officials are just beginning to test the SLC in an “alpha” form that is not available to teachers and principals, Wagner said. The system is supposed to go online for their use in a year, he said.

New York’s service agreement with the Shared Learning Collaborative, finalized last week, is below.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede