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Judge's order over City Honors, Hutch-Tech records raises privacy questions

The names of hundreds of students and their scores on admissions tests at City Honors and Hutchinson Central Technical High School over the past five years have been ordered released by a judge to a former teacher suing a private Buffalo school.

The former kindergarten teacher at Elmwood Franklin School says she wants the admission scores of her former students to help prove she's an effective educator.

But she also wants the names and scores of everyone else accepted to City Honors and Hutch Tech since 2013 as a comparison – even though they have nothing to do with her discrimination case against Elmwood Franklin.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy, in a written decision last week, granted Shellonnee B. Chinn her request and told Buffalo Public Schools to “fully comply … with the document demands.”

While it's one development in a 3-year-old case, Chinn considers it a victory, and others see broader ramifications.

But what about student privacy?

Attorneys for the school district, who had previously ignored Chinn’s request, worry the order violates the district's obligation under the federal Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act, said Joel Moore, an attorney for Buffalo Public Schools. That, he said, needs to be cleared up before the district provides any information.

“His intention, as we understand it, is to comply with the order consistent within the law, which is how we’re proceeding,” Moore said.

“It is certainly possible that the plaintiff may disagree with that position and may ask the court to intercede,” Moore said. “And if that’s the position she takes, we will cross that bridge when we get to it.”

Shellonnee Chinn at a press conference Thursday morning discusses her lawsuit against the Elmwood Franklin School and her request for student test data from Buffalo Public Schools. (Jay Rey/Buffalo News)

Students at City Honors and Hutch Tech – two of the best public schools in the city – take an admissions test to get in. Part of Chinn’s reasoning for her request is to show how her students stacked up against some of the best in Buffalo. She said she also subpoenaed local Catholic and private high schools for the same information.

As a teacher and mother, Chinn said she understands the privacy concerns families of those students might have, but providing her with only the scores won’t help her differentiate between which students she taught.

“I may get all this information and it may not apply, or I may not need it,” Chinn told The Buffalo News. “I’m not sure what it’s going to show, but I’m entitled to it.”

The district, she said, also would be required to notify each of the families caught up in the court order.

The academic performance of her students is irrelevant in this case, said Brendan P. Kelleher, an attorney representing Elmwood Franklin.

“Ms. Chinn taught 5- and 6-year-old students at a Elmwood Franklin School,” Kelleher said. “Requesting testing data from eighth-grade students from across the city – many of whom Ms. Chinn never taught – is nothing more than Ms. Chinn’s attempt to distract from her lack of evidence to support her employment discrimination claims, and to extort a settlement from the defendants here.”

Kelleher called it an act of a desperate plaintiff.

"The Elmwood Franklin School looks forward to this litigation progressing and the eventual dismissal of Ms. Chinn's claims," he said.

While a procedural win for Chinn in her court case, the ruling places the school district squarely in the middle of a court battle between her and Elmwood Franklin, where she worked as a kindergarten teacher for nearly 15 years.

Chinn alleges she was placed on leave in Febrary 2015, after she presented information that kindergartners from a poor Buffalo school had performed better on a standardized test than kindergartners from the more prestigious private school in North Buffalo. She said her contract at the school was not renewed for the following year.

Chinn, who is African-American, filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging retaliation, wrongful termination, as well as race, age and gender discrimination and breach of contract.

She also claimed conspiracy to deprive her of her use of federal funds for professional development.

That’s, in part, how the school district was pulled into the case. Buffalo Public Schools serves as an administrator of those funds and distributes them to area Catholic and private schools, including Elmwood Franklin.

“There’s no connection between us,” said Moore, the attorney for the school district. “We did not know who Ms. Chinn was until she filed this suit, which contradicts the notion that we discriminated against her.”

Chinn is representing herself in the case, but she said she is getting assistance from various corners.

She is seeking punitive damages from Elmwood Franklin and some 30 other named defendants. She also called a news conference for Thursday morning to discuss the importance of the latest developments in court.

The judge’s ruling has caught the attention of parent advocates in the district, who have raised questions in the past about discrimination in school admissions practices but were stonewalled in their quest for similar information.

The release of the data would be a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the school district and could go a long way to addressing policies or practices that impact negatively on minority students, said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, a parent group.

"The court decision itself was one thing, but the feeling of euphoria having prevailed on the law is something else," Chinn said. "At the moment, I truly understand the importance and enormous power of the federal court for an ordinary citizen, an elementary school educator, at that."

Besides the student data, Chinn requested years' worth of minutes from Board of Education meetings, names of employees supervising federal money and other discrimination complaints against the school district.

In all, she estimates it’s as much as 3 million documented pages, although Moore said that was an exaggeration.

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