Tag Archives: privacy

Breach of trust, breach of privacy

December 3rd, 2017

“I was walking down the aisle of the grocery store,” Greg said, “and in the next aisle I heard my son’s teacher telling someone the details of his abuse.”  I was driving Greg, a dad of three, to a local radio station where we were going to be on a talk show about children’s mental health.  We had only met over the phone and quickly told each other the brief version of our lives:  how many kids we had and what kind of mental health issues we grappled with.  The conversation quickly turned to our war stories, the stories of hardship and crisis, partly to prep for the interview.  That’s when Greg told me about overhearing the teacher.

Greg was a single father of two boys and a girl, all of whom had different diagnoses.  His second son, his middle child, had the most on his plate.  He’d had several psychiatric hospitalizations, rotated through several medications and bounced around among therapists.  Right now, Greg was trying to get his school system to see that the child they had enrolled a couple of years ago was a far different child with more serious needs.  He had debated with himself, then told the school the details of his son’s story, hoping it would create an “aha” moment.  I’m sure it did, but it also led to a privacy breach.

Greg and his wife had divorced when the children were small and they had gone to live with their mom and her new boyfriend.  He saw them irregularly.  Greg moved in and out of the state, had several jobs where he tried out a few things.  Some were successful, some weren’t.  Then one day he got a call saying there had been charges of physical and sexual abuse against his ex-wife’s boyfriend and could the children come live with him?  He immediately agreed, somehow thinking that his children would be the same as when they were preschoolers, just older versions of the children he had lived with every day.

They weren’t.  Each of them had been through a lot and expressed it differently.  His oldest son kept saying everything was fine but had nightmares at night.  His youngest, his daughter, was clingy and didn’t want to let him out of her sight.  His middle child had received the brunt of the abuse and alternated between hurting himself and exploding with pain and anger.  Greg, bless his heart, had to learn three different styles of parenting in very short order.

The day he heard the teacher telling someone the graphic details of his son’s abuse, the child was with him and heard it too.  The boy began sobbing and curling in on himself.  Greg told him to wait with the grocery cart and stalked over to the next aisle where he had a few choice words to say.  He felt a little better but he couldn’t unhear it and neither could his son.  Neither could the person who was told the story.

Parents tell me over and over again that they simply don’t trust school staff with their child’s mental health information or history.  They worry – without knowing Greg or his son – that something similar will happen and they fear it will hurt or infuriate them.  There are exceptions to this – parents report that they trust special education teachers and school nurses to a great degree.  Sometimes there are individual teachers who “get it” or have raised a challenging child of their own.  These are the people who translate the symptoms, like Greg’s son’s meltdowns, into working diagnoses and unmet needs.   But they seem to be a small group.

Things happen to children through no fault of their own, resulting in trauma and difficult behaviors.  Sometimes things happen within children, too, that are beyond their control, such as overwhelming moods or crushing anxiety or ping-ponging thoughts. Until they learn tools and strategies, behavior is often their only way to let others know how they are feeling and what their needs are.   In savvy schools, teachers, guidance counselors and aides can be “first identifiers” and spot the things that should concern us and raise the red flag.  In schools like the one Greg’s son attended, that seldom happens.

Parents worry a lot about privacy.  Information about us is collected by everyone, or so it seems, and your children’s information is gathered without their consent. (Often without a parent’s consent either.)  Some information doesn’t intrude into our lives very much so we shrug it off.  For instance, I really don’t care if my transponder tells EZPass how many times I’ve crossed a toll bridge or driven a certain highway. But other information is much more sensitive and can shape how people see us.  Personal mental health information still carries a powerful amount of stigma.

Some mental health advocates say that we should all tell our tales of mental health and mental illness openly. It is, they argue, the only way we will reduce stigma and raise awareness.  Every time I hear that, I think of Greg.  He thought by telling the school about his son’s trauma that he would create compassion.  He expected that the team working with his son would respect his privacy.  The day he heard the teacher talking in the next aisle and watched his son sobbing, he changed.  He learned to tell just enough but not everything.  He learned that sometimes the risk of sharing his story can be too great.  He learned that while our stories can create powerful change, emotional safety matters too.

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Schools, photo IDs and privacy

May 28th, 2012

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?

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