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School district’s ‘cloud’ storage plan criticized

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Parents concerned data would be vulnerable to hackers

By Daniel Laverty

The Jeffco School District’s plan to test a “cloud” storage system for student data has some parents concerned that vital information about their kids would be vulnerable to hackers and security breaches.

More than 35 concerned parents gathered at Normandy Elementary School on May 22 to voice their disapproval of the district’s plan to pilot “inBloom” — software developed by an Atlanta-based nonprofit that would centralize mountains of student data and store it off site.

Jeffco teachers now use up to 14 systems — programs like CAMPUS, Schoology, C-CAP, Acuity, etc. — to gather and store data from students and parents. InBloom would take all of that data and store it in an online, off-site storage system.

The data involved can include anything from students’ grades to their test scores and disciplinary histories.

“Data is a (teacher’s) bread and butter,” said Dave Millard, a teacher at Weber Elementary. “It no longer works to have a ‘gut feeling’ about a student. Teachers need a system to help (teachers).”

But some Jeffco parents are concerned that information stored with inBloom could be compromised, distributed to third parties, or even hacked and stolen.

Greg Mortimer, chief information officer for Jeffco schools, said that cloud-based storage is safer than on-site data storage.

“Leading national IT security experts helped design the inBloom security infrastructure, including Shawn Henry, the former executive assistant director for cyber investigations at the FBI,” Mortimer said at last Wednesday’s meeting. 

Mortimer did concede that no data-storage system can guarantee absolute protection of data, but said inBloom has better security measures than the Jeffco district currently does.

“It will allow teachers to have better access to data,” Mortimer said. “I can guarantee you that a huge majority of teachers are in support of whatever technology tools (will allow them to do that).”

The district will begin piloting the program in 2014 with “dummy data.” Jeffco is not being charged during the pilot phase, which expires at the end of 2014, and the school board will have to approve the actual implementation of inBloom starting in 2015. It would cost the district between $2 and $5 per student per year, which would add up to $172,000 to $430,000 per year.

Jeffco joins school districts in New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Illinois that are piloting inBloom.

Mortimer said no student data are in the inBloom cloud at this time and that students’ Social Security numbers would never be put in the system.

“(InBloom) is in the very early stages,” Mortimer said. “We don’t know exactly how it will work for us yet.”

In 2011, the Colorado Department of Education approached Jeffco Schools about piloting inBloom. Jeffco decided in February 2012 to move forward with the inBloom pilot, and the school board saw a presentation on inBloom in March.

Allen Taggart, Jeffco’s executive director of employee relations, told the board that electronic data storage isn’t new and that Jeffco and many school districts around the country have been doing it for years.

“I don’t think anybody has heard of a massive influx of lawsuits for loss of data or data privacy breaches as a result of that,” Taggart said.

Jeffco Public Schools has posted information about inBloom on the district’s website to answer questions and try to put concerned parents at ease. The website states: “Jeffco shares student data with parties who have a ‘need to know.’ This can include teachers, student support staff, administrators, state and federal agencies, and third-party vendors performing services on the district’s behalf.”

“Those ‘third parties’ are the programs that Jeffco teachers already use,” Mortimer said. Those programs include Schoology, C-CAP, CAMPUS, etc.

 

Parental concerns

But some Jeffco parents aren’t persuaded that the system would be secure and don’t think the district should pilot inBloom.

“I feel like all of this inBloom talk came out of the blue for me,” Jeffco parent Rachel Swalley said at last Wednesday’s meeting. “(Parents are) finding out about this late. I can’t find a list of data that’s going to be collected and stored.

“I don’t feel like there’s anyone from the district that’s against this,” Swalley said. “I’d prefer the data be kept where my student is at — at school.”

“InBloom has resources to better protect sensitive information (than Jeffco can),” Mortimer responded. 

Kevin Haley, parent of two Jeffco kids, said the district needs to listen to parents’ concerns about inBloom.

“We trust you to do the right thing for our kids,” Haley said. “(But) I don’t want something that was collected on inBloom to keep my kid from getting a job someday. Whoever hacks this system doesn’t care about the law. They’re going to sell (that information) to the highest bidder.”

“All of those risks exist today,” Mortimer said.

Haley added that district residents should be able to vote on whether inBloom is implemented and said parents also should get to decide whether their children’s data go in the system. He urged Mortimer and the district to slow the implementation.

As of March 24, the parent-started website www.schoolbelongstothechildren.com had collected 348 signatures on a petition against implementing inBloom. The petition demands that the district’s “unethical disclosure of confidential data must cease” until public hearings fully explain the purpose of the system and until safeguards are put in place. It also says parents should be given the opportunity to opt out of the system for their kids.

Jeffco parent Robynn Krueger said she was anxious the first time she heard about inBloom. Krueger met with Mortimer before last Wednesday’s meeting.

“I know that (the district) has a lot of data and that inBloom would make it more secure,” Krueger said. “It also sounds like it would save teachers an enormous amount of time.”

Krueger recommended that parents seek more information.

“If (a parent feels) panicked, get some answers,” she said. “I’m not endorsing inBloom — I want people to make their own decision — but I feel pretty confident with what the district is trying to do.”

The school district is planning to form a parent advisory board to help guide the inBloom test. Jeffco will also host a virtual town hall meeting in early June to provide more information on inBloom.

For more information about inBloom, visit www.inbloom.org, www.jeffcopublicschools.org and www.schoolbelongstothechildren
.com.

 

Contact Daniel Laverty at Daniel@evergreenco.com or at 303-350-1043. Follow him on Twitter at @LavertyReports. Check www.ColumbineCourier.com for updates.