theebrandenburgs blogspear

This page is designed to share information about our struggle to gain equity for our unique children and their learning styles in a public education system that is designed primarily to teach a single type of learner, and which is increasingly sidelined by fiscal and philosophical issues that challenge the core of its collective existence. We are especially interested in unique learners, and the talented people who teach them, their families, and our shared value as human beings. We seek the end of discrimination, the end of seclusion, separation, and isolation, as well as an end to chemical and physical restraints that are commonly used to assault our children and our unique interpretations of the world.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The File's Got Your Name & They've Got Your Number

by Tony Brandenburg
Originally run on reflexblog, December 27. 2011

"The file's got your name,
They've got your number, 
Sooner or later, 
They'll try and put you under."
Joe Keithly, 2+2 (Something Better Change, 1978)

In this digital age of the misinformation, the question of personal data collection being stockpiled almost seems moot. For some of us, the misinformation superhighway has been a source of communication  for a couple of decades. Its uses for data storage significantly longer that that. In fact, Orwell's Big Brother paranoia was unfounded; people are more than happy to share their lives via social networking without a care in the world. So, the collection of information about you, and especially your children- probably shouldn't alarm or upset you in the least, right?
For any of you locals who have followed what has happened to my family will no doubt attribute this current blog to more of my "posturing" and my "agenda" to devalue and discredit my neighborhood school. While these are not my words, nor my agendas, I don't care either way what people say. I do not seperate my core belief from anything I do in any forum, personal, professional, nor social.
In this age of absolute free speech, I have enjoyed watching people lay out their ignorance infinite. They are free to hide like vermin behind anonymity, and to say things from that hiding place that they would never dare utter in a public dialogue without reprise, lutilizing subterfuge and hidden agendas. They dare not speak aloud what they write on public forums for fear of being discovered. Sooner or ater though, that data will catch up with them, and hiding won't be an option.
So be it.
Schools collect data on your children, and you have little control on what that means. It has been going on for years, it drives funding models, and it is done without a second thought by people who put blind faith into their government and not a second thought about how, why, and what this information is for, or how it is being deseminated. In fact, school districts do this in a very non threatening, but systematic way. They do it on registrations, parent conferences, applications to the PTA, applications for everything.
I have some questions to ask about this, the kind of questions you would ask anyone who hands you an application asking for personal information.
  • What do they do with this information, and why is it collected?
  • Who has access to this information?
  • Why isn't there a disclosure on every document parents fill out promising that this information will not be shared?
  • What control do we have to retract information once we have given it?
  • What database is this information fed into, and where does it go?

This may not affect you, you may not care, or you may never have even given it a second thought. I know I never had, until I learned a lesson from my children's local school, and I learned it the hard way.
I am a teacher. I am a lot of things, but I am a teacher as well. One year, in the Proposition 187 era, I was notified that I was to collect information regarding the status of my student's families for documentation. It was, essentially, to determine their residency status. Does that strike you as within the scope and sequence of a teacher's job? I mean, I took this job to teach, and that is my role. I am not a government mole; I am an upholder of the United States Constitution and it's Amendments. I am an American teacher.
For your information, and in case you didn't know, your child's teacher is the number one collector of information about your education, your profession, your income, your citizenship status, and your ethnic identity. That's just for a start. You give them family history if you want specialized services, insurance information if you need assistance, or not, immunization and medical information. You give them whatever, and you don't bat an eye. In fact, your teacher is the number one collector of information about your child on this planet. That collecting of your personal information is so subtle, and such a given and understood function, that they collect it without even thinking about what they are doing, and you give it up without question. We just do it, and maybe you are cool with that.
How about photographs? It serves a double function. Beside the fact that the photo company makes big money for those tacky photos, your school also gets some fringe benefits. I always wonder how, and who makes the decisions for those accounts....... but that's just me an my agenda talking. I am sure there is a law somewhere that addresses this idea that it is OK for the school to take pictures, even if you have made it clear beforehand that you are not going to buy them, and, of course, somewhere or other I am sure you'll find that the concept of implied consent, which is the idea that consent is implied by silence or inaction, is utilized if you haven't given specific directions to the contrary. (and which, I have learned, doesn't mean that the district will fail to "lose" your statement withdrawing consent.)
What I have found in my own experience is that two to three days a year are totally disrupted by this event- the fall photo shoot, the spring photo shoot, the promotional photo shoot, and the two to three days of make-up pictures. I will also share that I am required to make sure that a photograph is taken for every child, regardless of whether or not they family wishes to purchase the photographs, and that there is a little digital  ticket assigned to each child for the photos. All of that information came from.....where? and goes to......whom?
Oh, I know. Those horrible pictures in a dynamic package starting at $10 and going up to around $50 are part of the school experience, right? Past practice is best practice, right? The photo package- it's a keepsake so that you'll remember this special time in all of your lives..... and maybe if you buy the big pack, you can bury your guilt as a parent that works 40+ hours a week by proving to your child and their school that you love them, that you support education, and that you'll buy the pictures to help out. God knows you wouldn't want your child's teacher to think that you don't care about your child or the school.
Photography profit opportunity days also provide a necessary documentation tool that attributes a digital code to your child, tracks your child from age 5 until 18- allegedly for child safety and law enforcement and school safety- and assigns a picture identification with numeric code to your child. At your school those pictures go into a file, and yes, they also go into a school database- a paperless cumulative file. It all goes stright back into a database, opening up the possibility that any 'talented' hacker can break into, and from that system they can pull that information- your life, and your child's- they can pull that right up. But stuff like that doesn't happen, right? Hackers can't, and don't- break into banks, store, credit card companies, or even or into politician's digital space.
Say cheese.
So, what is a cumulative file and what are its functions? What goes into it? Who can access it? Where is it stored? What other types of files exist?How many of these files exist with your child's information in them? 
I found that these questions, like navigating everything else in the school system, was complicated, and confusing. I personally found that there were more than four files of my youngest child's information floating around through the local school district, and that included information that was submitted to the district and my child's teachers in electronic and written form- from people I didn't know, including professionals from both private agencies and public educational agencies, parents of my child's classmates, board members whom I've never met with, lawyers, and other people I don't know.
So. To write this little blurb I started to do some research. I started with the obvious. Remember when you would call a number and get an operator recording? That's what this statement from the California Department of Education feels like: 
The California Department of Education does not collect and/or store student transcripts, records, or cumulative files for students in California public schools....... To obtain records.......  contact the school directly. If the school is closed, contact the local school district or county office of education for assistance. 
I found the website Great Schools to be a little more helpful. Deidre Hayden's How & Why to Obtain Your Child's School Records ( outlines up to four types of files: 
  • Cumulative file- which is on site at the school, and is generally basic information
  • Confidential file- generally kept at a central location, probably the district office, and which contains confidential information limited to specific personnel. This includes IEPs and such
  • Compliance File (some schools)- generally a file that shows the district met specific compliance guidelines; and
  • Discipline File (some schools)- which are related to long term suspensions and/or expulsion information.
Wow. That's a bunch of information in a bunch of of files, stored in a bunch of places for a bunch of people to access. No worries, right? Everyone is your friend, and they all want the best for you and your family, right? Let them collect away, no questions asked.
Then one day you find yourself in a disagreement with the school, a conflict which doesn't come to simple closure. That's when it all comes rushing forward. Good luck, you may not like what you find. That information will be utilized as truth, even if it is clearly labeled hearsay. and your child will be held accountable for it as if it is all true, and as it all happened the way it was recorded.
I am not speaking in a hypothetical, this has happened to my child. It is through the efforts of the current superintendent that the information that has been "lost or unattainable"  has been located and provided. What that implies for others is that this process may take the efforts of many people to locate what is circulating about your child, and it may take a great deal of time. In this case it took about 14  months of informal requests, and  9 months of formal requests. Patience and diligence has to be a trait possessed to make progress.
There are currently in place through many districts electronic collectors of data that are accessed by teachers and others for record keeping.These fall under many brand names, but generally do the same thing. They are used for tracking attendance, report card information, and student progress on standards. It is essentially a data tracking device.
There's even one that collects phone numbers and adresses so that you get pre-recorded phone call every week from your child's principal. This phone call may seem like a great thing, it is certainly a time saver for the districts that utilize them, but it is a data tool. It is "paperless proof" that you have been notified of events. If your answer machine is like mine, you'll get the greeting and that's about it. You may be provided in a meeting with a pie graph or a list of notifications that show you of notifications you "received" because the tracking tool doesn't recognize that someone else in your house, or even a machine, was actually the recipient of the phone call.
Every morning when I log in to do attendance I am reminded of students that have been suspended in the last three years for specific reasons. There was a time when I received this notification in written form (as required of districts by law) and which I would just as soon blow my nose into and discard. (I personally don't care who has been suspended, and I don't need to know, but I understand the process is a necessity.) This notification is made to all teachers who receive a student has been suspended in case the behavior reoccurs. It is confidential information that only school personnel are allowed to have and discuss. However, as is often the case, it is provided parent to parent when parent volunteers are allowed to access confidential student information (happened to my extended family twice) and when they don't understand the law- which is generally most of the time. As this information becomes fed into data bases, its confidential nature gets lost in  digit and abbreviation codes, so that it is not only readily available to anyone (including substitute teachers who may also be your neighbors) but to anyone who can access the database even temporarily. 
In short, on a daily basis I am notified of student suspensions when I take roll. It is right there, next to the child's name. Talk about labeling a child. 
So. What to do? Well, at any time, for any reason or none at all, you may access your child's cumulative file to look through it. If there are documents there that you do't have, you may request them. There may be a fee for the copies, but often the office staff is happy to run them as time permits. Finding other files may be more complicated and require a visit to the district's office. You may also place a written request for all records. This may also involve a fee. District's are obligated to honor this request, but reminding them of that will probably be counter-productive. Your decision.

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