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Tewksbury SpEd Students' Private Info Leaked Online, Along With Parents' Cooperation 'Rating'

Apr 08, 2015 03:36PM ● By Bill Gilman

Erin Knyff models the tee-shirt she mysteriously received in her mailbox.

The tension between the Tewksbury School District and local Special Education parents reached a whole new level last week when it was revealed that a document feature personal information for 83 out-of-district placement students had been inadvertently published online.
Moreover, it included individual ratings for parents based on how "difficult" they were for the district to work with.
The document, which was included as part of the information packet for the March 24 School Committee meeting, remained online for several days before the error was discovered and it was removed.
The seven-page document was put together by Rick Pelletier, director of Student Services, as additional information for the Tewksbury Finance Committee, relating to the proposed FY '16 School Department Budget. The document did not name the students but included personal information, such as the student’s current grade, out-of-district placement location, last school attended, and whether the placement decision was forced by a legal settlement or based on an IEP team decision, or if the student recently moved to town.
It was more than enough information to make students easily identifiable, according to one angry, frustrated parent. The students were numbered 1-83.
"I got texts from four different people about the list," said Erin Knyff, whose son Liam receives out-of-district services. "I had people saying, 'Liam's No. 39, Liam's No. 39.' My son is the only one on the list at that particular school so it was pretty obvious."
According to Knyff, other students were also easily identifiable.
"It became pretty clear the list was in alphabetical order," she said.
Once the document's presence online was discovered and it was removed, Superintendent of Schools Dr. John O'Connor sent a letter of apology to the parents/guardians of the 83 students. The letter read, in part:

"I cannot begin to tell you how embarrassed I am and, more importantly, how sorry I am to have caused many of you to lose the trust and respect of the Tewksbury Public Schools and me personally. I take my leadership role seriously. Trust and confidence is a critical aspect of successful school leadership and I am truly sorry for what has been lost. I promise to work towards regaining the trust and confidence of parents, guardians, and students and hope this correspondence will serve as the first step."

(Editor's note. Dr. O'Connor's letter, in its entirety, is attached to this article as a PDF document.)
Knyff, for one, was unimpressed with the apology, in large part because this was the second such information leak. Earlier this year, a document was similar information was made public, leading to the same concerns among parents. That incident came on the heels of a letter sent by O'Connor to district parents in December, announcing that free, all-day kindergarten would not be able to be offered in the 2015-16 school year due to a $2 million budget shortfall. He blamed the shortfall on what was described as a "skyrocketing" unforeseen increase in the costs associated with out-of-district Special Education placements.
At the time, Knyff and other Special Education parents felt their children were being singled out for blame for the delay of the free, all-day kindergarten program. She and other parents attended a School Committee meeting in January, at which she voiced her hurt and frustration with O'Connor over his letter and what she felt was a dismissive attitude when she privately shared her feelings about it. O'Connor responded with a public apology to Knyff and the other parents and admitted he could have worded the letter much better.
Knyff said she again felt her son and other Special Needs students were singled out by the new document. In his letter, O'Connor stated that the new document prepared by Pelletier was intended only to provide the FinCom with more detailed data on the significant increase in out-of-district placement costs and information that could be used to project future costs.
But the new document also contained one column that outraged parents for an entirely new reason. There was a column which appeared to rate parents of the 83 out-of-district Special Needs parents with a score of 1, 2, or 3, based on how cooperative or uncooperative they were to work with in the opinion of district officials. 1 was "Cooperative", 2 was "Somewhat Cooperative" and 3 was "Uncooperative."
Knyff said she was told by O'Connor that the rating system was not intended to gauge how easy or difficult parents were to work with but rather how likely it was that the student in question could be able to be shifted from an out-of-district placement to a less expensive in-district program.
However, Knyff isn't buying the argument. She said she was personally aware of parents who were given a rating of "1" even though their children had such severe disabilities that they could never be served by an in-district program.
Knyff and her husband, Adrian, were rated a "3", as "uncooperative. It's a label Knyff disagrees with but takes some pride in.
"I don't think I'm uncooperative. I advocate for my child," she said. "If fighting for your child makes you uncooperative then fine."
Knyff said she woke up one morning this week and found a tee-shirt in her mailbox. The tee-shirt, white with red lettering, had the number "3" on the front and "1 of 83" on the back, indicating her rating and the 83 out-of-district placement parents. She said she has no idea who made the tee-shirt or left it for her, but she said she will wear it with pride.
Moving forward, Knyff said she and other parents have lost trust in and respect for the School District, Students Services Office, O'Connor and Pelletier and that the rebuilding process will take time.
O'Connor, Pelletier and School Committee Chair Brian Dick did not respond to messages seeking comments for this article.


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