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Judge now rules student names, admissions test scores won't be released

The names and admissions scores of hundreds of students from Buffalo Public Schools won’t be released, after all.

A federal magistrate has reversed his previous order to release several years worth of data on students from City Honors and Hutchinson Central Technical School as evidence in a federal court case.

The school district, which argued that releasing the student information without consent violates federal privacy laws, asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy to reconsider – and he did.

While unusual, reversing the order “in this case is appropriate” to protect the confidentiality of district students, parents and employees –  none of whom are responsible for the district's miscues in the case, McCarthy wrote in his recent ruling.

The data was being sought as part of a lawsuit between the Elmwood Franklin School, a private school in North Buffalo, and one of its former kindergarten teachers, Shellonnee B. Chinn.

Chinn filed a wrongful termination and discrimination suit against Elmwood Franklin and, to prove she was an effective educator, wanted the admissions test scores of her former students who were accepted into two of the city’s top high schools. She also wanted the names and scores of everyone else accepted to City Honors and Hutch Tech since 2013 as a comparison.

But when the school district failed to respond to Chinn’s demands, McCarthy in July ordered the district to “fully comply” with her request, raising not only the privacy concerns but public curiosity over what the data might reveal about the district’s admissions process.

The judge later agreed these were highly personal and sensitive records that could potentially be disseminated and he rebuked the district for not bringing up such concerns prior to his original order.

Buffalo school district tries to block release of student names and admissions scores

As a result, the judge not only reversed his order, but told the school district to pay Chinn $2,000 for ignoring its legal obligations to respond to her demands. The judge had previously handed out the same penalty to Chinn for the same reason: refusing to respond to concerns raised by the other side.

For its part, the district acknowledged it was at fault for not responding, but is pleased the court reconsidered releasing the student data because it would have been an invasion of privacy.

The school district, which was also named as a defendant in the case, now has a pending motion before the judge to be dismissed from the lawsuit.

“We’re pleased with the ultimate outcome and look forward to making our arguments in court,” said Nathaniel J. Kuzma, general counsel for the Buffalo school district.

In fact, the court already has dismissed Chinn’s claims against Elmwood Franklin, after her failure to provide adequate responses to the school's requests for information in the discovery process.

“The Elmwood Franklin School is very happy that the Court has dismissed all of Ms. Chinn’s claims against the school, its trustees, and employees,” said Brendan P. Kelleher, the attorney representing Elmwood Franklin. “This case had nothing to do with student achievement or discrimination, and everything to do with Ms. Chinn’s unwillingness to work cooperatively with others and follow rules — the same problems that doomed her in this litigation.”

Chinn, who is representing herself in the case, has filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

"Like many plantiffs, and certainly African-Americans with claims of discrimination, I would like a fair and reasonable opportunity to have my claims adjudicated on the merits and not be dismissed on procedural grounds, as is the case now," Chinn said in a statement to The Buffalo News. "Opportunities to appeal to the circuit court and the U.S. Supreme Court have been major tools for African-Americans seeking justice and I will avail myself of these legal opportunities."


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