School district's frequently surprise me with the depth and scope of knowledge that they have on parents. A typical first conversation I have with opposing counsel goes something like: "are you aware of the fact that the parents are on the verge of divorce, mother takes valium and they are nearing foreclosure, so I am concerned that any settlement we enter into will not be viable because of residency issues!" Quite remarkable and far beyond information that should ever be within the ambit of a social developmental study, but this type of information comes to me on a regular basis.
So I am left to wonder how does this information come to the attention of the school district and more specifically the special education director and in turn their attorney. One obvious source is through the case study specifically the usually ordinary social developmental study (SDS), where the "friendly social worker" has just a "few questions for you." One attorney told me point blank that the mother had suffered from mental illness since childhood as shown in the SDS, so therefore she was "nuts," which explained the students struggles in school. To misuse information like this is quite unethical but probably not actionable, since the attorney has a legitimate interest in seeing the student's records, albeit not apply it in this manner.
More pernicious types of information gathering come from what I call "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 I represent a parent from one of these redlined zones.
Finally, the most common ways that schools gather information is from chatty parents who unfortunately feel too comfortable in emails or chats with school personnel and reveal all kinds of information. Not to be paranoid but what you say to the teacher, therapist, social worker 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. Additonally, there is the now well publicized information gathering through webcams on school laptops in the home. For now this level of surveillance is probably a lesser risk given the popular uproar and private and public suits over this issue.
What to do to avoid to having your own information used against you:
- guard what you say in social media such as Twitter and Facebook. School personnel are tuned into social media, and if you are "parent enemy number one" they will look;
- be very aware of how and what you tell school personnel at all times. They may be friendly and even a friend, but that does not mean they are not receiving pressure to divulge information;
- on a SDS give needed information but it is not necessary to make a full confession about collateral relatives or matters that are not clearly germane to your child's IEP.
- use social media and other online and legal avenues to gather information about school personnel, if needed, to level the field. Use search engines like social mention to see if there is anything about you or about them on Facebook, Twitter and other sites and services. I am not by any means recommending a full out campaign of tit for tat or full scale paranoia;
- use your right to see your child's students records to zero in on email traffic at school about you or your child which are student records. Frequently school personnel will write unfortunate things on the school server or their home computer about parents or students, not realizing that they are creating damning student records. Several of my opposing counsels, who represent schools, have told me that this a big problem; they in-serviced staff on exercising care in use of email but a near total lack of awareness persists.
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 otherwise be a legitimate claim. School personnel are tuned into the power of information about parents, so be careful but not paranoid.