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Schools, photo IDs and privacy

Every year when children return to school, parents wade through and sign a stack of forms.  Buried in the middle is a form where you check off one box giving permission to have your son or daughter’s picture taken for a student ID and another for the school to take or use their photo if the media should need it.  What if you discovered the school offered that photo to the police for a photo line up?

This is exactly what happened to one student at a Boston high school.  Here are the facts.  The student left the school and got on a public bus to return home.  Later in the day, police allege that he robbed another student of his cell phone and ipod.  The detective on the case went to the police officer at the school to see if he could obtain a student photo.  This police officer, in turn, went to school staff who handed him the student ID, which had a photo, name and date of birth.  The police did not have a search warrant and no one had asked for or received parental consent. 

However, the background of the ID was quite different from other photos the detective had.  So the police officer assigned to the school went back to school staff and asked for and received several more student photo IDs.  These other students probably bore some resemblance to the suspected student (no doubt they were all male) and all their pictures had been taken in front of the same background.  Again, there was no search warrant or parental notification or consent. The photos were enlarged and the names and birth dates were removed.

The victim made an identification, charges were filed and the case went to court.  The judge in juvenile court barred the police and district attorney’s office from using the photo array as evidence saying the student had a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”  An appeal was filed and it was heard before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.  Last week, the court sent the case back to the juvenile court saying there wasn’t enough evidence presented in the case on how student ID cards are created and used in order for them to made a decision.  “In ruling as he did, the judge made certain assumptions about the photograph that may well be correct, but evidence supporting the assumptions is not in the record before us,” Justice Margot Botsford wrote for a unanimous court.

After many well-publicised school shootings, beginning with Columbine in 1999, towns and cities across the U.S. began locating police officers in schools.  Administrators, staff, parents and the community were worried about safety.  Today, many schools have police or school resource officers located on school grounds.  Unsurprisingly, when school resource officers are co-located they are often treated as fellow school staff. The boundaries can blur.

A parent’s job is to keep their child from harm. We do this because we love our children and know that while we can’t keep every hurt at bay, we can try to shield them from a great deal.  When we sign those permission forms for a photo to be taken or used for media purposes, none of us imagine we are agreeing to let the police use those photos.  Besides the student who the police suspected, there were 6 or 7 other students whose photo IDs were pulled by the resource officer and handed over to the detective.  These students were guilty of nothing more than bearing a resemblance to the student suspected of robbery or having their picture taken in front of the same background. What if any of them had been mistakenly identified? For a parent to willingly agree to have their child’s photo in a police line up qualifies as putting their child in harm’s way.

Schools often take on the task of teaching students to be wary of sharing personal information on the internet, facebook or by texting.  Parents often worry about their child’s personal information being used for some nefarious purpose but also know that a photo ID can benefit their child as well.  We all recognize the need for the school to have information about our children.  What should be our expectation of privacy?

Remembering Yolanda

For countless reasons, May has been and still is my favorite month of the year. It’s filled with dance recitals, school plays, field trips, field days, lilacs, graduations, May day walks and Maypoles. With longer, warmer days we also enjoy baseball games, ice cream trucks, bikes, pogo sticks, swingsets,  hopscotch and marching in or watching memorial day parades.  They are all great things that speak of May to me.

School is coming to an end and then there are the “firsts” of the year. First communions, first trips to the beach, first swim, picnic and cookout.  They all happen in May and remind me of new beginnings, happiness, pleasures and the hope that there is so much more to come.

My May memories are filled with commencements, summer jobs, weddings, vacations and my youngest daughter’s birthday on May 12. Often it would fall on the same day as Mother’s Day. This youngest of my three girls, from her first recognized day, celebrated in a very BIG way. There was her third birthday when everyone gave her the LARGE bag of Lays potato chips because it was the only thing she asked for, and made her the “happiest girl in the world.” Then there was the third grade birthday party where, despite the fact that we wrote out invitations for her entire class, she extended verbal invitations to the entire school (kindergarten to fifth grade) and many of these invitees showed up as well. I also remember her sweet sixteen pool party where all the boys brought her roses.  There were so many that the last boys to arrive gave them to me!  My May baby added to my list of all the reasons I love this month.

As the years went on, our family also celebrated Children’s Mental Health Month in many different ways. We did NAMI Walks together, attended legislative breakfasts, went on advocacy trips to the State House. 

My May baby, along with her two sisters, sometimes suffered from mental health demons.  However, she always had a special empathy for others with struggles like her own.  As I worked as a family supporter, even before her diagnosis, she would often ask me to speak to a schoolmate’s parent because, as she said, “They don’t know how to do it.”  The “it” usually meant to advocate at the school level.

This May we will celebrate our daughter’s 21st birthday.  It seems impossible but she will not be here to celebrate with us.  My baby, the child of so many talents and strengths, with physical and spiritual beauty and emotional challenges that sometimes tore at my heart (and other times frustrated me more than I imagined any child could) took her life four years ago.  It was just months before her 17th birthday.

I wanted to write this blog for several reasons.  The first and most primary is to honor Yolanda.  As her parents, we think about her, laugh at fond remembrances and painfully miss her every day.  I don’t think that will ever change.  But we have faced the unimaginable and learned much.  I know my daughter would want me to speak to others in her name.

In many ways, we have come so far in the past 20 years in children’s mental health.  Early diagnosis, treatment, appropriate interventions and a growing recognition by schools of mental health challenges have all improved.  Yet, not all children and families benefit from these improvements and many children are still “pushed through” from  grade to grade.  While some people are leading the charge in their part of the system, there are still children and families who do not get what they need and are not treated with understanding and respect. Through the CBHI initiative, the state has put in place pioneering efforts to try to rectify some of these problems.  In many cases, some things are improved and children and families are doing better.  But, despite all these efforts, other kids are “still stuck.”

We have come so far, yet there is still so much more to do!  I ask you today, for all of us and our children, to continue to challenge the barriers and work to take them down.  In whatever way you can, be aware of how much impact your voice and presence make.  A little righteous indignation can go a long way and can bring about improvement and change. It may well be the most exhausting work you will do or have ever done.  It is not often applauded.  We don’t get the big bucks, accolades or the recognition of a job well done.

We are fueled by passion and hope that tomorrow can be better for our own children and the others that follow.  With HOPE that they can attend school in an environment where they feel safe and happy.  With HOPE that they can have friends, enjoy play and be respected.  With HOPE that they can do the best they are able to do and get the help they need to do it.  And with HOPE that not one more child has a week, a day or a minute where they cannot imagine living another moment.

I HOPE for many merry, merry months of May for us all.

Mary Ann Tufts is our guest blogger.  She is a fierce advocate, a wonderful mother and a strong voice for children’s mental health.  The Children’s Mental Health Law was named after her daughter Yolanda.