This Ajax dad is taking on Durham school board over ‘weird’ residency demand

An Ajax father has filed a complaint with Ontario’s privacy commissioner over what he calls a “weird” decision by the regional school board.

At the beginning of the month, the Durham District School Board (DDSB) sent a letter to parents of all online students demanding they prove they live in Durham Region. The board is asking parents to provide mortgage documents, lease agreements or utility bills to ensure no out-of-province students are slipping into online classrooms. 

That’s something Omkhar Arasaratnam is refusing to do because he views it as an invasion of his family’s privacy.

He also questions the necessity of the move.

“It’s not like they’re trying to get into NYU or Yale or something like that,” he said.

“This is the DDSP elementary.”

Robert Cerjanec is a spokesperson with the DDSB
Robert Cerjanec, the DDSB spokesperson, says the new policy is from the provincial education ministry to ensure out-of-province students aren’t accessing Ontario’s online classrooms. (Zoom)

Arasaratnam said his problems began earlier this month,when he refused to provide that information to the principal at Romeo Dallaire Public School in Ajax, east of Toronto. That’s where his two children, who are in Grades 6 and 8, last attended in-class lessons.

He said a board representative then contacted him, and ultimately accessed his family’s earlier registration info, including his home address, without his permission.

That’s what led Arasaratnam to file his privacy complaint earlier this week.

The DDSB pointed out the directive actually originated with the Ontario Ministry of Education, and that the board is simply carrying out the ministry’s order that it start verifying the residency of all online students by the end of the 2022-2023 school year, and then continue to check annually.

“This is a requirement that the Ministry of Education is requiring all school boards in the province of Ontario to do,” board spokesperson Robert Cerjanec said.

“While we understand the concern that the parent is bringing forward, this is the requirement that we are required to do for every student that’s enrolled in virtual learning.”

Cyber attack in November

But Arasaratnam said since the board gathered that information when his children first enrolled at school years ago, there’s no need for proof now.

Compounding his reservations, he said, is the cyber attack on the DDSB in November, during which online classes had to be cancelled.

“It’s a huge concern,” Arasaratnam told CBC Toronto.

“While that doesn’t directly tell us what their security practices are like inside of the DDSB, it’s certainly strong indicators that.this kind of security hygiene, if you will, isn’t really a top priority for them,” he said.

“So to further part with even more sensitive information just because they asked for it, doesn’t really sit well with us based on their track record.”

Board not storing info

But Cerjanec said the board is not collecting actual records. It’s simply asking parents to show them documents or utility bills during virtual meetings with board representatives, who will then attest to the ministry that the parent has proven his or her residency.

No copies of those records will be made, Cerjanec said.

According to documents from the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, a file was opened on Arasaratnam’s allegation as of Jan. 18, but it’s unclear whether a formal investigation has begun.

On Thursday, Arasaratnam said he’d filed a separate privacy complaint against both the ministry and the board, arguing that annual checks of parents’ residency also constitute a privacy overreach.

Meanwhile, the the Ministry of Education is standing by its policy.

“School boards must verify that the family resides in Ontario when they register any student at a school board in order to generate funding from the province,” the ministry said in a statement to CBC Toronto.

“School boards do not need to retain the proof of residency documentation; school boards only have to retain proof that they have seen evidence the student resides in Ontario, usually an attestation from school board staff.

“The ministry requests that boards verify this information annually for this group of students to ensure that the province is funding education for students residing in Ontario.  Without verifying the information annually, students could move abroad and continue to be funded for online learning.” 

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