SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The South Kingstown Town Council will oversee an investigation into how a mailer advocating for passage of the school facilities bond was addressed and sent to local schoolchildren, drawing concern and condemnation this week from parents.
Uproar over the mailer came a week before South Kingstown is set to go to the polls and vote on a planned $85 million bond to upgrade the schools and move the high school to a renovated Curtis Corner Middle School building. Early voting began April 14.
The main worry for the parents, they said, is that their children’s personal information, including home address, was provided to the AFL-CIO, which paid for and authorized the mailer, according to information on the document. The return address on the mailer is for the AFL-CIO of Rhode Island, in Providence. The organization is the state chapter of the largest federation of labor unions in the country, which engages in substantial political spending and activism.
Town Council member Jess Rose called for the council to investigate how the list was disseminated and to work to prevent repeat instances.
“A list of our schoolchildren was disseminated to a third party with their addresses,” she said. “My mind immediately goes to people who may be fleeing from domestic violence that now fear that any third party can request a list of addresses of children in our schools,” she said. “We need to protect kids. That is paramount. Maybe it was somebody’s mistake, but no one is owning up to it.”
Several parents told the council Monday that it could have happened in only two ways – a deliberate release of information, or a data breach.
“This is a database that links children’s names to addresses,” parent Jason Colvin said. Colvin said his 10-year-old got the mailer. “That is huge in my mind. The R.I. chapter of the AFL-CIO needs to be contacted and instructed to immediately destroy this database, and they need to provide a memorandum that they’ve destroyed it and the information wasn’t shared with any other parties, and while we’re talking to them, maybe they can tell us where they got it.”
Colvin said he called the AFL-CIO Monday and got an answering machine. He called again Tuesday and requested that his child’s information be removed.
“They said they would remove it,” he said. Colvin also asked how the organization got the child’s information.
“”I was told that their mailing lists are supplied to them by other unions,” he said. “This is what I was told. I am highly concerned about this.”
Other residents said they’re now also worried about the integrity of personal data held on residents at Town Hall, such as vital records, voting records and more and called for a complete review of data security.
Parents also took to Facebook to complain that their children 18 and younger – some as young as 5 – had received the mailer. Others said it is a likely violation of both school department policy and the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects student privacy.
“I am very concerned. I’ve been a teacher in another district for 18 years and literally never heard of this happening,” parent Karen Humes said. “I hope the results of the investigation are shared with us in as much of a public forum as possible.”
South Kingstown Supt. Of Schools Linda Savastano issued a statement Monday.
“SKSD has had reports that a mailer about the bond was addressed to our students and mailed to homes,” she said. “While we did not share this information directly with anyone listed on this mailer, our policies do allow us to share directory information. I will recommend to the School Committee that they review these policies as soon as possible. Please know that we do not take this lightly. I will always do everything in our power to keep our children as safe as possible, this includes keeping their data confidential. I am very sorry for all of this.”
School district attorney Andrew Henneous released a five-page memo on Monday outlining what he said is School Committee policy supported by federal guidance that allows so-called “Directory Information,” including student names and addresses, to be released without parental consent. Parents do have the right to opt out of the disclosure, he added.
In basic terms, a parent consents to release of the information if they do not fill out an opt-out form, according to the memo.
“As written, the release of this directory information is supported by federal guidance and committee policies unless an eligible student or parent has opted out,” he said. “In this particular instance, a recent mailing from AFL-CIO is what led to the questioning of the process and policy. The district performed a search going back to 2019 and does not have any record of AFL-CIO making such a request. Therefore, although it would have been permissible under current policy, it does not appear that AFL-CIO received the information in question directly from the district.”
According to Policy 8220, directory information includes a student’s name, participation in recognized activities/sports, address, telephone, and e-mail, weight and height for athletic team members, photograph, degrees, honors, and awards, date and place of birth and dates of attendance and grade level.
The memo from Henneous also cites FERPA guidance that directory information is information contained in the education records of a student that would not generally be considered harmful or an invasion of privacy if disclosed.
A school may disclose such information to third parties without consent if it has given public notice of the types of information which it has designated as “directory information,” the parent’s or eligible student’s right to restrict the disclosure of such information, and the period of time within which a parent or eligible student has to notify the school in writing that he or she does not want any or all of those types of information designated as “directory information.”
The notice to parents can appear in various sources including a newsletter, a local newspaper, or in the student handbook. The school could also include the directory information notification as part of the general notification of rights under FERPA. The school does not have to notify a parent or eligible student individually.
The explanation provided by the attorney is unsatisfactory, parents said. Even if the district did nothing illegal, they argued, the release of student information was a serious ethical breach around student privacy, used to influence an election.
The council unanimously referred the matter to the town solicitor’s office to outline how the council can begin an investigation, and follow up as soon as able. The council is set to be briefed by the solicitor’s office Friday in executive session.
“I want to know who did it and why,” Council member Deborah Bergner said. “We can’t wait for two weeks.”
The School Committee was preparing to hold a similar session this week as well, along with a public session, Chairwoman Emily Cummiskey said.
“All seven members are extremely anxious to find out what happened. We are supporting the investigation and I know as of this morning the attorneys were collaborating to ensure that all of the information was provided so that answers could be got for us as a committee. And as soon as we get those answers we will be sharing them with the public.”
Town Council member Deborah Kelso cautioned against jumping to the assumption that the school department released the information, and advised people to wait until all facts about the mailer are known.
“I would like to know how this happened. I did read the memo from the school solicitor,” she said. “I’d like to know the facts of the case. I don’t want to jump to conclusions or point the finger that anyone has done wrong, because we don’t know that yet. We don’t know how this originated. I think it’s important that we find that out and if an investigation by the council is the most expeditious way to get that done, I wholeheartedly agree. But I do not agree with any assumptions that someone within the school department is responsible. We don’t know that until we know it. So an investigation is warranted, and everyone in the community needs to step back and wait for the facts to come forward, whatever they may be.”
School Committee member Paula Whitford said she shared the concerns, and welcomed an investigation.
“As a parent, I’m very concerned about how the information of my child and every child in the district got out,” Whitford said. “As a member of the School Committee, I think it’s unfair for anybody to make any assumptions that we as a school district have dropped the ball. I cannot make assumptions against my colleagues, but I can assure you I have the same concerns as every parent who received that mailer.”