LEWISTON — A new state law requires schools to ask parents to submit their children's Social Security numbers so schools can track students' progress after they graduate from high school.
That has some officials worried that schools collecting individual Social Security numbers this fall could put students at risk for things such as identify theft.
“It's just plain wrong," said Lewiston School Committee Chairman James Handy. "The Maine Department of Education is overreaching.”
“Social Security numbers are to be protected,” committee member Tom Shannon said. “The fewer places they're available, the less chance there is for students' information to be stolen.”
The Lewiston School Department will do what's required by law and will ask parents for the numbers, Handy said. But the committee will recommend parents not give out the numbers.
The Bethel School Board also is opposed. It passed a resolution asking the Maine Legislature to junk the law. School Board directors called the law an invasion of privacy and directed administrators to send letters to parents advising them that they aren't required to report their children's numbers.
The Maine Civil Liberties Union is recommending school boards pass a resolution similar to Bethel's and share that statement with schools and parents.
“Social Security numbers can be used to unlock the most personal details of a person's life,” Brianna Twofoot of the MCLU said Tuesday. “It's wrong to expose young people to risks like identify theft, (especially when they don't have a say about it). We live in a time when Social Security numbers are connected to so many pieces of information. What this program does is connect Social Security numbers to academic and disciplinary records."
In recent years, data breaches have occurred at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Finance Authority of Maine.
But the Maine Department of Education favors the law, saying the benefits of better policies and better teaching outweigh the risks.
Knowing where former students are going to college, or where they're working, can provide policymakers with information to improve policies, said Jim Rier, director of finance and operations for the department.
“The purpose is to try to understand those things that lead to successful learning and try to know how to make adjustments to improve them,” Rier said.
Since 2005, the department has had individual student identifiers for K-12 students. Those identifiers allow the state to track students while they're in school but not after they graduate from high school, Rier said.
The reason the state needs to use Social Security numbers, and not its individual student identifiers, is that colleges and employers use Social Security numbers.
By law, parents can opt out, Rier said, by simply not returning the form.
The only way the department can get the numbers is voluntarily from parents, he said. “It's a decision parents will make."
He pledged that his department will carefully collect and store the Social Security numbers, just as it does with other student data.
“We are required to have a great deal of security for the information we collect,” Rier said. “It applies in this case.”
The Maine Department of Education will issue letters to school districts offering guidance on implementing the new law, Rier said. The letters will include information for parents, including the risks involved.