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How Did They Know That? Take Care Not to Over-Share at School.

Feb. 29, 2016

Editor’s Note: Susan Morton is an educational advocate in our office with a clinical social work background and experience with mental health and developmental disabilities. Please read on for her inaugural post on our new blog, on the topic of using caution in discussing confidential student or family information. — M.

School districts frequently surprise me with the depth and scope of the knowledge they have about parents. A typical first conversation I have had with teachers or school administrators goes something like this:

“Are you aware of the fact that the parents are on the verge of divorce, the mother takes psychotropic medication, and they are nearing foreclosure on their mortgage? So I am concerned that the family may be moving out of this town.”

Quite remarkable. Despite being far beyond the range of information that should ever be within the ambit of a social developmental study, this type of information comes to me on a regular basis as a parent advocate. So I am left to wonder how this information comes to the attention of the school district, and more specifically to the special education director. One obvious source is through the case study, specifically the social developmental study (SDS), where the “friendly social worker” or case manager has “just a few questions for you.” One local school principal told me point blank that the student’s academic struggles were a result of the mother being “nuts,” as clearly indicated in the interview notes stating that she had suffered from mental illness since childhood. The more pernicious type of information-gathering comes from “educational advocacy redlining.” That is, parents in certain parts of town where the land values are known to be lower simply will not have the resources to fight back. This information is known to the school because of taxing and financing, but was never meant to be used in this way. The look of surprise on the sped director’s face is a true pleasure for me, when our firm represents a parent from one of these redlined zones. Finally, the most common way that schools gather information is from chatty parents who unfortunately feel too comfortable in emails or conversations with school personnel and reveal all kinds of information. Not to be paranoid, but what you say to your child’s teacher, aide, or other school personnel should be considered to be fair game to be passed around to everyone on the team, and in the building and even beyond!

To avoid having your own information used against you:

  • Guard what you say on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. School personnel are tuned into social media, and if you are “parent enemy number one” they will look;

  • At all times, be very aware of what you tell school personnel, and how you tell it. They may be friendly – or even a friend – but that doesn’t mean they’re not being pressured to divulge information;

  • On a SDS, provide the needed information, but don’t overshare! It’s unnecessary and unwise to make a full and detailed discussion about collateral relatives, or matters that are not clearly germane to your child’s IEP;

  • Emails sent or received by school personnel that discuss you or your child are educational records, so make sure you obtain them via a FERPA request! Zero in on this email traffic to know what is being discussed, and ask questions if anything doesn’t add up. Exercise caution in how information is shared with school personnel. Emails that are sent in a moment of haste and anger can destroy what would have been a productive discussion about a legitimate issue.

School personnel are tuned into the power of information about parents. Don’t be paranoid, but be careful in your communications.