Cook County Record

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Instant Risk: Litigation threat could imperil schools' ability to instantly message parents, others

By Stephanie N. Grimoldby | Apr 6, 2017

Phone 04

A class action lawsuit now pending in Chicago’s federal courts could imperil the ability of schools to instantly send out voice and text messages and emails to parents, students and the community to inform them of emergency situations and other school-related matters, according to one company that specializes in providing schools with such messaging services. 

And should such services disappear, schools in Illinois and elsewhere could be left scrambling to adapt to an enforced new legal reality, school officials said. 

West Interactive Services Corporation, which operates the notification system SchoolMessenger, faces a class action lawsuit for sending messages the Nebraska-based company said are “communications that are not only consented to, but wanted” by parents and the community. 

Four plaintiffs – including two Illinois residents – feel otherwise. 

In January, Chicago-based McGuire Law filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court alleging the company had violated the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act by instantly sending automated voice and text messages to potentially millions of mobile and wired phones on behalf of more than 48,000 schools and educational organizations that hold service contracts with West. 

In particular, the plaintiffs claimed West invaded the plaintiffs’ privacy by sending messages that did not relate to a school emergency or a student’s attendance, and that they never consented to receive such messages in the first place. 

“Indeed, Defendant's placement of large quantities of prerecorded calls of dubious import results in the recipients of such calls frequently ignoring or deleting otherwise urgent school-related messages, such as those concerning unscheduled student absences, building closings, security threats, inclement weather events and other subjects deemed by the FCC to warrant immediate communication in the form of unsolicited robocalls, in direct contravention of the very purpose of the service for which Defendant's customer schools have contracted,” the suit read.

The cost of litigation – namely, to preserve the calls and messages sent by West – already is affecting the ability of West to service its clients, the company wrote in a brief in February, after moving the case to federal court.

 West estimated it conservatively could spend $100,000 a month to keep records of messages needed to substantiate the case, even though most “are likely not even at issue,” the company wrote.

“Plaintiffs’ lawsuit directly affects the ability of WISC to direct critical resources to timely delivery of these messages, as it is now being required to expend employee time, and significant financial and infrastructure resources, to ensure that data is maintained for potentially millions of people who depend on these messages and calls on a daily basis,” West said.

 In effect, the lawsuit “jeopardizes the current relationship each school has with its parents, and the continuation of communications between those schools and parents regarding their students,” West said.

 The importance of instant communication

Oak Lawn Community High School District 229 has utilized the services of SchoolMessenger for several years now, after using other notification companies in the past, said Superintendent Michael Riordan.

 “[This type of system] is incredibly important,” said Riordan. “Along with social media and our general web presence, this is one of our primary methods of making sure parents are aware of upcoming events, important news of what’s going on at the school and, on the rare occasion we have some sort of incident at the school, this is how we let parents know what’s going on.”

 West’s lawyers declined to comment on how schools specifically could be affected by the pending lawsuit or why it believes the litigation could jeopardize the company’s ability to continue to provide such messaging services to schools.

But if the threat of litigation remains high, schools could see a decrease in services, an increase in costs or even the removal of such school notification systems altogether.

If West were to hypothetically drop its SchoolMessenger program, District 229 could look internally for similar communication systems, Riordan speculated.

“There are multiple vendors out there, so if this company were to decide to no longer do business with schools, our first [step] would be to look at different vendors,” he said. “If there were no other vendors ... I’m not sure what we’d do. I suppose we’d look inward to our own tech staff to see if we could develop a call or blast [system of our own].”

Michael Jacoby, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Business Officials and former superintendent at Geneva Community Unit School District 304 in Chicago’s western suburbs, said the IASBO has no data to show how many schools use SchoolMessenger or similar messaging systems, but that “it is a very common practice.”

He has not heard of any negative scenarios from his members regarding the use of such systems, though that doesn’t mean abuses aren’t happening, he said.

Regardless, the removal of such systems would be detrimental to school-to-parent communication.

“At the local level, it could be a very real and serious type of consideration,” he said. “If [schools] are depending upon these systems and they utilize them as a part of their communication framework, then removing that framework or having to find a new provider obviously could create problems.”

“Whether it’s texts or phone calls that are automated, there are certain kinds of messages you can’t get out any other way,” he continued. “I think it would be a step backwards to lose that opportunity to have an all-call or posted message, even from a security standpoint, [when] schools want to notify their parents immediately. If you had to do that manually, that would take quite a long time. Email list servs … call trees, those techniques that were popular 20 years ago have really gone by the wayside.”

Obtaining consent

While federal law provides exemptions for schools to send automated messages for emergencies and other necessary topics to those who consent to receive them, the plaintiffs in West’s lawsuit contend they never consented to receive messages from the schools.

However, the original complaint filed by McGuire Law did not detail what the messages in question addressed, or how the named plaintiffs came to be on each school’s call list. Lawyers for the McGuire firm declined to comment further when asked.

In an April 4 response to the complaint, West Interactive asserted the plaintiffs consented to receive the messages, but does not provide evidence to back this assertion.

In District 229, the primary phone number parents share with the district automatically is placed into the SchoolMessenger system, said Riordan.

“We do not ask for permission to put them into the system,” he said. “We inform them of that [policy], and we allow them to opt out.”

Many parents enter additional contact information so they can receive notifications at work or to make sure grandparents or other guardians are notified when a message is sent, Riordan said.

The lawsuit against West Interactive remains pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, docketed as Case No. 1:17-cv-01137.

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Organizations in this Story

McGuire Law PCU.S. District Court for the Northern District of IllinoisWest Interactive Services CorporationIllinois Association of School Business OfficialsOak Lawn Community High School District 229