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Sacramento moves to block immigration officials from student data

As federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents ramp up arrests of residents who are in this country illegally, California lawmakers are taking steps they hope will prevent that agency from accessing student records that could help agents deport people.

“One of our concerns was that districts collect a lot of information on students and that information goes into student records that are maintained largely at the local district level, but also to a certain extent at the California Department of Education,” said Rick Pratt, a consultant for the education committee of the California State Assembly.

The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), Pratt said, prohibits student information from being released without permission from parents or guardians.

But law enforcement is exempted from that law.

Pratt has researched the issue for lawmakers on the Assembly Education Committee. And his research has led the committee chair, Assemblyman Patrick O'Donnell to author Assembly Bill 699 that would, among other things, prohibit school districts from collecting a student’s immigration status in order to prevent immigration agents from looking at student files that could in some way lead them to the immigration status of students or their parents.

The move comes as the Trump administration’s stepped up deportations and have netted people who are in this country illegally who have not committed serious crimes. California state and city officials have taken a confrontational position towards the federal policies.

“We have heard that some local school districts are in fact collecting the immigration status of pupils," O’Donnell said. "So what we’re doing, going forward, is seeking to prevent that from occurring."

O’Donnell did not say which school districts were collecting student immigration data. The bill, he said, was the result of parent, teacher and school officials' concerns as arrests of people by immigration agents increase in their communities. 

Many school districts have said their campuses are safe zones from arrest by immigration agents. 

A 1982 federal court case, Plyer v. Doe, prohibits schools from asking students to prove they’re in the U.S. legally in order to enroll in public schools.

But O'Donnell and others said school districts may be collecting the immigration status of students inadvertently in the process of offering a student services to help his or her learning.

The goal of the bill is to lock student data from immigration officials, but O’Donnell says that could be overridden by a court order to allow access to the data.

"Under the Trump administration, we don’t know where this venture is going so we need to set some parameters in California," he said.

The student data O'Donnell and others are worried about remains in the hands of California’s 1,025 locally governed school districts.

“Some members think that these bills are an over-reaction to statements that were said in the heat of a political campaign,” said Nancy Chaires Espinoza, legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association. The group represents California’s those school districts’ elected school boards.

”Other members look at the historical record with things like Japanese-American internment and the use of public records in that process, and they look at executive actions and they say, ‘Look, we have to prepare for all the possibilities.’”

A spokesman said on Monday that the California Department of Education had not received any requests for student data from federal immigration officials.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Chaires Espinoza's title. KPCC regrets the error.