Council wants to investigate how student information was shared

SOUTH KINGSTOWN – Numerous community members raised concerns to the town council and the school committee this week over a mailer on the school facilities bond issue, which was addressed and sent out to many children in the district. 

Some of the children who received these mailers were in kindergarten.

Many parents in the district have viewed this as a major breach of student privacy and are concerned that sharing this information with a third party has put their children in jeopardy.

Town Councilwoman Jess Rose made a special motion at Monday night’s meeting to add this item to the agenda and at least open the matter up for discussion. 

“As many community members already know, a mailer was sent to many, many students of the South Kingstown School District, pertaining to the bond referendum,” Rose said. “I want to be very careful not to point fingers here. We don’t know who sent it, who got this list, but the bottom line for me is that a list of our school children was disseminated to a third-party, with their addresses.” 

The council, she said, has a responsibility to figure out how this list was disseminated to AFL-CIO and to prevent something like this from happening in the future. 

Councilwoman Deb Bergner echoed concerns that a political action committee received access to students’ names and addresses. 

“It’s not the YMCA recruiting for summer camp,” Bergner said. “It’s people trying to market and influence an election.” 

Her proposal to launch an investigation as to how those names and addresses were received by a third-party political action committee was well received by other members of the council, though since the matter was added to the agenda at the last minute, it could only be for discussion purposes. Open meeting law did permit Town Council Vice President Rory McEntee to make a motion to direct to the town solicitor’s office, however. He moved the town solicitors office to provide councilors with a memorandum as soon as possible, informing them as to how they can oversee an investigation into the matter. 

For the safety of the children, Rose agreed that this security issue calls for a special investigation.

“Maybe it was someone’s mistake, but no one’s owning up to that,” she said. “I want to know how our childrens’ names and addresses were given to a third party, and I would like to know sooner rather than later for the safety of all the children in our school district.” 

Having read the memo from the school department’s solicitor, Councilwoman Deb Kelso also voiced her support for getting to the bottom of this problem. According to Kelso, the memo states that the school department has conducted a search, looking back over the past two years, and has not found evidence of this information being shared. 

“I want to know because I want to know the facts of the case,” Kelso said. “I don’t want to jump to any conclusions. I don’t want to point any fingers that anyone has done wrong, because we don’t know that yet.”

“We don’t know how this originated, but I think it’s important we find that out,” she added. “If an investigation initiated by the council is the most expeditious way to get this done, then I wholeheartedly agree.”

What she does not agree with, however, is any assumptions that someone within the school department is responsible. 

“I think everyone in this community needs to take a step back, and wait for the facts to come forward,” Kelso said. “Whatever they may be. And then we’ll deal with it. We’ll find a right path forward to handle this so we don’t put anyone’s safety in jeopardy ever again.” 

A line within the memo which states that their “policies do allow us to share directory information” leads Bergner to believe that someone from within the school district is responsible, however. Especially when some of the youngest recipients weren’t even part of the school district two years ago. 

While there are a myriad of concerns about how this action can place children in jeopardy, at its core, this is an attempt to influence an election. 

“You’re using children for a political purpose,” she said. 

Kelso urged Bergner to err on the side of caution, and allow an investigation to find all the facts. 

During the public comment portion of the council’s meeting, community member Dorald Beasley also raised his concerns about the confidentiality of student records, and stated that this action strictly goes against the district’s policies.

“You can take that memo that the district’s attorney sent out and put a match to it, because it’s garbage,” Beasley said. “They violated their own rules.” 

Community member Paula Bradley thanked Rose for taking this matter up as soon as possible by adding onto the night’s agenda for discussion, and Bergner for urging an investigation into the matter. 

“I’m a parent with two kids in our school system, and I’m going to tell you right now, I feel completely powerless,” Bradley said. 

“The response from the school district was completely disheartening,” she added. “It took an entire day, and what they sent was a five page document why it would be okay if they did this.”

She agreed with Bergner’s assumptions that someone in the school district is responsible for sharing this information. 

“The political propaganda that was sent out in our children’s names just shows how we’ve lost all common sense around this bond,” Bradley said. “When my children’s security has lost second to that, I’ve lost all faith in our school district leadership. Someone needs to be held accountable.” 

South Kingstown School Committee member Paula Whitford said she was among the many parents whose children received a mailer, and as a parent, she shares others concerns for how this information was given to a third party. 

As a member of the school committee, however, Whitford said she believes it to be unfair “of anybody to make any assumptions that we as a school district have dropped the ball.” 

“I can assure you, I have the same concerns as every other parent who received that mailer,” she said. “I plan to help to get to the bottom of this. I am happy that the town council will initiate this investigation, because I too think it needs to happen.” 

The school committee will be meeting in a private executive meeting on Friday to discuss this security matter, though there were a handful of community members who also raised their concern during public comment at the school committee’s Tuesday night work session. 

Community member Raissa Mosher, among others, voiced her concerns in both meetings.

“The response from the school department did say that they did not directly give the information to the AFL-CIO,” Mosher said at the school committee’s Tuesday night meeting. “The only entity that has this information is the South Kingstown School Department.” 

According to Mosher, this directly goes against policy that “explicitly states if a non-school official seeks access to any student records, the district shall first obtain consent from a parent or guardian of the student prior to disclosure – including address, telephone and email.” 

“This policy was specifically adopted because so many organizations were asking for students’ names and addresses,” she said.

The interpretation of this policy from the school department’s attorney is a stretch, in Mosher’s opinion, and the memo sent out does not ease the concerns of parents. She was not satisfied with languages that essentially communicated that “consent is effectuated at the beginning of each school year, if the opt out form is not completed and turned in.” 

“Not opting out does not constitute consent,” Mosher said. “Who could ever have predicted that we needed to clarify, to that degree, for this district to protect students’ names and information.”

During Monday’s council meeting, one community member stressed that the third party who disseminated the mailers, AFL-CIO, should at the very least, send a memorandum of agreement assuring the community and parents that their children’s private information was destroyed. 

The town council had a packed agenda on Monday evening, which took more than five hours to fully work through. While concerns for student safety was a large focal point of the meeting, the council also adopted its budget for the upcoming fiscal year. 

For the second year in a row, the council approved a budget with no increase to the property tax rate. 

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