Hamilton County Schools says thousands of family records will be released, then decides to hold off

The requestor of the records also withdrew it in a hail of criticism

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / "Hamilton County Schools" is seen on a new school bus at the Hamilton County Department of Education on Wednesday, July 3, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County Schools alerted families of 45,000 schoolchildren Thursday evening that their personal information would be released next week to a private citizen who asked for it - then backtracked four hours later under a barrage of criticism.

The requestor withdrew his request shortly after.

The information included parent names, street addresses, email addresses, phone numbers, grade level of children and school of enrollment.

"We are required by law to fulfill this request," the district informed parents, in bold letters, around 5 p.m.

By 9 p.m., the district sent out a follow-up email.

"While the board is bound by the law, we respect the privacy of our students and their families," it said. "No information will be shared with the requestor unless and until we have exhausted all legal options."

The request was made by Brendan Jennings of the group Friends of Hamilton, which has advocated for a new city called Hamilton in the northern part of the county, including Ooltewah, Harrison, Georgetown, Birchwood and McDonald, according to its website. The group attempted incorporation in 2012.

The email from the school system to parents included Jennings' email address and phone number and said that Jennings did not provide a reason for the request.

Jennings' group announced around 10 p.m. that the request would be withdrawn.

"Our intent in no way was to invade anyone's privacy, but rather to help foster closer communications among parents while increasing transparency in the classroom," the group said in an email. "Sort of an electronic PTA or NextDoor for parents.

"The past year has been a challenging one for parents, including many in our group. We have previously been involved in political campaigns, including the statewide effort to end forced annexation in Tennessee, and we wanted to help create a more advantageous playing field for parents in presenting their concerns to school boards and school administrators," the announcement said.

"Based on the response we received, we are hereby rescinding the open records request. We will continue to work with other like-minded groups to help parents get their voices heard at school boards and help make sure curricula and teaching methods more appropriately reflect what parents want in their schools."

Catherine White has a child who attends Red Bank Middle School and received the email from the district. She told the Times Free Press earlier Thursday that she found the request for information related to children in the school system unsettling.

"My knee-jerk reaction was, 'Why does this individual want this information without being required to give an explanation or reason?' To me it seemed unduly invasive," White said.

"I'm wanting to know why the attorney for the school board wasn't objecting to what appears just to be a wholesale production of parental information, because as you can see they want not only your name but your contact information."

Families also began commenting on posts on the Friends of Hamilton Facebook page expressing concern about the request.

"Why are you asking for my personal family information through Hamilton County Schools?" wrote Ron Sprague on the page's most recent post.

"You have no right to request the information of Hamilton County Schools parents or children. What are your intentions with this information? What safeguards do you have in place to protect this information?" commented Haley Stone on the same post.

In a Facebook post earlier Thursday night, before withdrawing the request, Friends of Hamilton defended it, saying that the request is not meant to violate parents' or children's privacy.

"Our actions are in response to what is happening in our public schools across Hamilton County, the state and the country. Our intent is to provide greater power to the parents along with this request and future legislative actions with groups across the state of Tennessee," the post said.

The group added, "There is misleading news being released. There is no personal information being requested about your child. No name, no age, no sex, etc. Only information requested is to connect parents in specific schools and specific grades to each other. Majority of other information names, address, etc. is all available via multiple other public record data sources like property tax records, voter records, and many more under Tennessee State law."

In the district's follow-up email, officials said the district alerted families about the request at the guidance of the school board attorney for transparency, adding that the board will support families who want to take legal action to block the request.

"Ordinarily, this information is used to honor graduates, scholars, and athletes. In this case, however, the citizen seeks information of all 45,000 plus students and parents in our district. The request encompasses home addresses, phone numbers, emails and additional information. We consider this request to be an invasion of the privacy of our students and parents," the statement said.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.