CPS worker improperly gave student info to charter for mailers

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One of the mailings to Chicago Public Schools students’ homes from the privately run Noble Network of Charter Schools.

A Chicago Public Schools employee improperly leaked some student names, home addresses and current schools to the Noble Network of Charter Schools — details that were used in recruitment mailings sent just before CPS’ official student count, according to a letter the district sent to affected parents.

It’s not clear how the information was handed over. And what may happen to that employee, whom the district is not naming, will depend on the results of an investigation by the school system’s inspector general. Meanwhile, CPS’ chief information officer Phillip DiBartolo says that worker’s access to student data has been suspended.

DiBartolo, who doesn’t typically sign letters sent to families, also wrote that the “unsolicited advertisement” was the “result of the improper actions of a CPS employee” who released children’s names, addresses, grade level and current elementary school to an unnamed Noble employee. He also said that Noble “confirmed in writing that your child’s confidential information has been removed from all of the organization’s computers and databases.”

It’s not clear how many individuals were involved.

CPS spokesman Michael Passman said that Noble sent district officials the full list of students who had postcards addressed to them, and CPS used that same list to mail their letter — on Noble’s dime — to 30,000 families.

“CPS is deeply troubled by any violation of students’ privacy,” Passman said in an email. He said the schools system is reviewing its IT security procedures but couldn’t describe current policies other than to say that only select staffers who need access to student records have it. He also said there was no reason to believe that additional information beyond what was used on the mailers was leaked.

On Oct. 27, CPS officials contacted the office of the inspector general, which asked them to refrain from firing the employee until the investigation is complete.

BACKGROUND: Postcards to CPS students have some parents worried

The schools’ inspector general, Nicholas Schuler, said he continues to investigate but could not estimate how long his probe would take. He declined to comment further.

Noble spokesman Cody Rogers, who in September told the Chicago Sun-Times that the charter organization had paid a third-party to send recruitment postcards, said that the chain of 17 charter schools began investigating in September, following complaints, and “determined that a list used for one of these mailings was improperly provided to a Noble employee by a single CPS employee, and should not have been used by any Noble employee.

“We have tightened our student information policies and formally disciplined the Noble employees in question,” Rogers said, but he did not specify how many people or what sanctions they faced. “We take extraordinarily seriously the trust families place in us to safeguard student information and provide high-quality public education for their children.”

Nor would he say who authorized the postcards sent using the CPS data.

Jeff Jenkins’ 11-year-old son received one of the glossy full-color mailers at the family’s home inviting the child to transfer to one of three specific Noble schools, including one named for Board of Education president Frank Clark. The card landed at their home in mid-September, a week or two before CPS took its official student count on the 20th day of school and amid talk of a teachers strike. The inclusion of the child’s name and current school on the card was what immediately raised red flags, Jenkins said.

The mailings sparked concerns not only that children’s privacy may have been breached, but also that the privately managed, publicly funded charter school was swooping in at an unstable time at CPS to attract kids that would bolster its own attendance.

“It’s important people understand the gravity of the situation,” Jenkins told the Sun-Times on Thursday. “Your kid’s information is out there, and God only know how much of it. Why does Noble feel like they can do this? When I brought it to their attention, they laughed me off.”

Mansueto High School recruitment postcard | Facebook post

Mansueto High School recruitment postcard | Facebook post

Addressing Clark directly at the October school board meeting, Jenkins said a Noble official had told him on the telephone that she would take the 11-year-old son off their list. He said when he pressed her about the list, he was told, “We don’t have to share that with you.”

“She said, ‘We pay good money to third-party vendors. I don’t have to tell you anything more.’ ” He also said he made a report to the schools’ inspector general.

On Thursday, Jenkins remained outraged, calling on CPS to answer more questions for parents about what he described as a “breach of trust.” He had not yet received a letter from the district.

“Parents need to be given as much information as possible,” he said. “Who was this employee? What kind of information did they have access to? Exactly what information did they distribute to Noble? Who was the Noble employee? . . . Who gives the go-ahead to sent these postcards at Noble with children’s name and private information on it?”

With a few exceptions, CPS prevents the release of student information, saying in its privacy policy that “to disclose or release any student information — including addresses or special education status — to third parties, except as described in this policy, is a violation of state and federal law, punishable by fine and/or liability for civil damages and attorneys fees.”

The outcry from Jenkins and families across the city over the postcards, which once may have been tossed without a thought into the recycling bin, underscores the fierce competition for students set up several years ago when the broke public school system decided to dole out taxpayer money to schools based on their enrollments, as counted on the 20th day of school.

For years, CPS’ enrollment has been steadily declining, but it took a dive this fall by about 11,000 students since last September. Each child a school can enroll by that count is worth a fixed sum of money to the school, so with those per-pupil allocations lower than last year’s, the competition to attract as many students as possible has intensified.

In September, Noble’s Rogers said the charter chain paid a mass mailing company to have the cards sent to a number of students citywide encouraging them to enroll this fall in several of their schools, an effort he described as part of typical recruiting. He did not release the company’s name.

“We also contact families through third-party companies that distribute our information cards but don’t share specific names and addresses with us, which is a standard process used by numerous organizations that send bulk mail,” he said at the time. “Our goal is to simply inform families of the opportunity to choose a public charter option for their students, and mail is one of the many ways we do that.”

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