HOUSTON (FOX26) -
When parents of Special Ed students stumbled onto the disturbing truth that schools were being paid a cash bounty for their kids’ confidential records, they went "bazonkers" and then they started digging.
"If these parents hadn't gotten together and had not done the research on it, this thing would have gone underneath the radar for sure. This thing would never have surfaced," said Louis Geigerman, a well-known Houston Special Education advocate.
Turns out, school districts across Texas were getting paid to ship highly private, student information, including medical and social welfare, reports to a year-old, private, data mining company named SPEDx.
"There's just a lot of sensitive information in there that we don't want to get in the hands of the wrong people," said Maggie Suter, founding member of Texans for Special Education Reform and the mother of a son challenged with Down Syndrome.
It didn't take parents like Suter long to learn the transfer was part of $4.2 million "no bid" deal.
"It doesn't pass the smell test," said Suter.
Internal e-mails obtained by Texans for Special Education Reform reveal that TEA staffers openly questioned the no-bid contract with one asking, "Is this legal?".
"That immediately should put up people's antenna. This wasn't a competitively bid contract. A questionable vendor at best, with little or no experience obviously, only one state did they do it, Louisiana and their report was garbage," said Geigerman.
Friday, under mounting pressure, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath terminated the SPEDx contract saying, "Significant concerns have been raised regarding our agency's processes. The efficacy of the project would be undermined without real support from parents and educators alike".
Morath went on to promise all student data transferred to SPEDx would be destroyed.
"It's a big relief to us that this information is going to be destroyed. Now we just want the proof that it will be," said Suter.
In an email to FOX 26, a TEA spokesperson said Morath has launched an agency-wide review of contracting procedures.
Suter and parents with TFSER are calling for the legislature to launch an investigation.
When Texas public schools teach children with disabilities, educators are required to keep detailed records that are highly confidential.
They are records the Texas Education Agency is now asking hundreds of school districts around the state to share with a private, year-old, Georgia based company known as SPEDx.
The massive, multimillion-dollar data transfer has drawn deep concern from the advocacy group Texans for Special Ed Reform.
That's because school districts are handing over private information without the permission of parents and receiving cash payments in exchange.
"We have a problem with that because parents are not in the know. We are not told. We are not given the option to opt out. This is very troubling and we feel like this needs to stop," said Maggie Suter, mother of a special needs son and a founding member of TSER.
At least nine Houston area school districts including Clear Creek, Pearland, Tomball and Deer Park have already agreed to transfer Special Ed records known as Individual Education Plans to the Georgia company. Several other local ISD’s are expected to follow.
Maggie Suter says her son's information has already been "sold."
She and other parents fear those confidential records could now be compromised by a data breach beyond the TEA's control.
"There's confidential information, private information, health information, medical information. I don't want any of that to come back and get in the hands of companies that have nefarious purposes," said Suter.
For its part, the TEA claims the data transfer to SPEDx is designed to improve special education by identifying "best practices" and then sharing them with districts across the state.
As for privacy concerns, a TEA spokesperson says, "The Agency takes very seriously the need to maintain confidentiality of student information in Texas. The IEP Analysis Project included a variety of explicit provisions to protect student privacy."
For now, Maggie Suter is unconvinced and says other parents should be equally suspicious.
"Until all of this can be worked out, I think it should be stopped," said Suter.
TEA says the cash payments provided schools are meant to offset administrative costs.
TEA also provided FOX 26 copies of the contract with SPEDx which appear to contain strict confidentiality guidelines.