Kids getting on school bus

A proposed change to state law related to personal information about schoolchildren could allow the names of their parents or guardians to be released if requested, which has sparked privacy concerns among some Democratic lawmakers.

A bill in the state Legislature modifies the state’s list of “directory data” — a provision in the open records law that allows information such as students’ addresses or their participation in a sport to be released — to include the name of parents and guardians.

State Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, the bill’s lead sponsor in the Assembly, said the addition would be a minor change to the decades-old law.

“As a parent, why would my name not be tied to my kid?” he said. “They can release all this sort of information about my kid, but not that I’m their parent. It just sounds weird to me.”

But state Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, said he views adding to the directory data as a broader privacy concern of the information being used by people “for ulterior motives that are not in the best interest of the person.”

“My concern is the unintended consequences of affecting the privacy of the parents that don’t want that information” released, said Hebl, who sits on the Assembly Education Committee.

The Assembly version passed out of the Education Committee on a 10-5 vote in April, with Rep. Don Vruwink, D-Milton, joining Republicans in support. It is scheduled for a vote by the full Assembly next week.

The state Senate version has yet to receive a hearing in committee.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Public Schools’ teachers union oppose the bill, while the Wisconsin Association of School Boards and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce support it.

Currently, state law defines directory data as a student’s name, address, telephone number, date and place of birth, major field of study, participation in sports or extracurricular activities, height and weight of those on athletic teams, dates of attendance, photos, degrees and awards received and school most recently attended.

Schools must inform parents of what is considered directory data and provide them an opportunity to opt-out, usually within two weeks of the beginning of a school year.

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Under state law, student directory data is public unless a school board creates a policy to restrict it or the parents opt out. A school board can also limit what categories it considers directory data from what is allowed under state law, said Dan Rossmiller, a lobbyist for the school board association.

He said the change would put state law more in line with federal law covering student privacy, which defines directory data as information “that would not generally be considered harmful or an invasion of privacy if disclosed.”

Rossmiller said the law also has two built-in safeguards for privacy by giving school boards the discretion to limit their definition of directory data and allowing parents to opt out.

The Madison School District, for example, has a policy under which directory data can only be released “when it relates to educational activities, school-related functions or has a legitimate educational purpose,” with some exemptions for law enforcement, attorneys, county departments and courts.

The law is used to produce things such as yearbooks, sports rosters and graduation programs, Rossmiller said.

It caused concern among Democrats in 2015 when a voucher school advocacy organization sought directory data as part of a marketing campaign.

Born said the idea for the bill came out of a school safety group in Dodge County involving public and private school representatives, local police departments and the Sheriff’s Office.

During one of the group’s meetings, a law enforcement detective told a story of going to a school to inform a student of a tragedy that happened in their family, Born said. The detective sought to confirm the identity of the student’s parents with the office, Born said, but school staff felt they could not provide the parent names because it is not a category included in directory data.

“It might be a very anecdotal, isolated thing that happened, but here some county officials are trying to do the right thing and communicate some information to the student,” Born said. “It just seemed like this is a very reasonable request.”

While the intention behind the change might be good, Hebl said, a provision under the law already allows schools to disclose student information to law enforcement in the event of an emergency.

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