Boston officials unveil new student privacy policy

Details scarce on what exactly is changing

BOSTON SCHOOL OFFICIALS are preparing to unveil a new, stricter student privacy plan intending to clarify what information federal immigration officials can access. But at a briefing for reporters on Thursday, they declined to explain how specifically the new approach differs from previous policies.

Police officers with the Boston Public Schools have been criticized in the past for identifying immigrant students as potential gang members based on their social media presence, their friendships. and their school activities. That information, according to news reports, made its way into the hands of federal immigration officials, who in turn used it as the basis for deportation proceedings. Some of the former students are appealing those deportations.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and School Superintendent Brenda Cassellius say the new policy builds on the city’s Trust Act, which limits information sharing between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials.

“We want to share that our schools are safe places for them to go and that the only thing they need to worry about is the test the next day – not worrying about whether they are going to have their data shared inappropriately,” Cassellius said, adding that the school department’s 76-member police force is working closely with the Boston Police Department on the new policy.

While the policy is only a proposed plan right now, it will be delivered to the school committee in the coming weeks, and the plan is for the public to get a chance to weigh in before the body votes to make it official. The proposal, Cassellius says, will ensure that the school district is correctly following the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which gives parents or students older than 14 control of student education records.

Boston school officials say they currently notify all students and parents of their rights through a guide that includes the types of information that may be legally released without their consent, and the information that can’t be released without that consent. There are exemptions in the case of subpoenas and “safety emergencies.”

Under the new policy, school officials will develop an “internal protocol” for approving the disclosure of school police records to law enforcement entities. Under current law, student incident reports aren’t considered education records if they’re created for a law enforcement purpose. Moving forward, Cassellius said, school officials will decide what information can be shared with law enforcement.

Cassellius, who has been on the job for 10 months, said she has read about past incidents where students suspected of gang activity were reported to Boston Police officials, who in turn shared that information with federal immigration officials. An estimated 130 student incident reports containing student personal information were shared with federal immigration officials from 2014 to 2018, according to public records acquired by Lawyers for Civil Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Casselius said she heard about some of the incidents from parents when touring Boston schools, making it a priority to see what kind of policies currently exist around information sharing.

Asked if there has been a gray area in the existing policy, Cassellius said, “We want to make sure there’s a bright line in the future.”

Cassellius said teachers and school police officers, along with the Boston Police Department, have already been to two informational trainings.

Boston Police Commissioner William Gross minimized past information exchanges with federal immigration officials, and seemed unapologetic about the  incidents.

“Frankly,” he said, “what happens in the street happens in the school as pertains to violence. And what happens in the schools happens on the street.”

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Gross stressed the importance of conflict resolution and mediation the police department conducts at schools, but said he has no problem “arresting individuals that would jeopardize the safety and integrity of the school system learning environment.”

Janelle Dempsey of Lawyers for Civil Rights said she is not convinced city policies in the sharing of student information have changed at all. “Student records remain at risk. The school to deportation pipeline remains open,” she said. Her organization sued the City of Boston in 2019 when they were denied access to records about city education officials’ and Boston Public School communication with federal immigration authorities. The inquiry was spurred by the 2016 arrest of an East Boston High School student by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement after a school police officer filed a student incident report about a lunchtime student argument that ended up in the hands of the agency. The student had a green card and no criminal record. He was deported to El Salvador.