Flashdrive

Fairfax County Public Schools has been releasing confidential student information for years without the permission from students to do so.

That was the claim made in a story on Special Education Action, a website dedicated to informing parents about their rights in public school systems such as Fairfax particularly in the area of special education. The article, written by the site’s editor Callie Oettinger, discusses how the school system may have violated rules under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). 

The revelation came when Oettinger received a thumb drive from FCPS with documents that were in response to a FERPA request she had made. That drive contained 12 unredacted reports with personally identifiable information related to students and their families. Oettinger makes it clear in her story that she did not request these documents. 

Of these documents, seven of them relate to almost 500 South County High School students belonging to the class of 2022. According to Oettinger, those breached documents include the student’s names, their FCPS identification numbers, their FCPS email addresses, the schools which they are enrolled in, the names of their parents and/or guardians, as well as said parents and/or guardians email addresses.

Along with the remaining five reports, the documents contain the information of thousands of students from not only South County High School, but also Hayfield Secondary School, Edison High School, West Potomac High School, Lake Braddock Secondary School, and the FCPS online campus.

According to Oettinger, students within the FCPS system have the option to attend classes at other high schools if the classes the students are taking are not offered at the high school that they’re enrolled in. Oettinger, by her own words, makes the assumption that this ability to go between schools in the county to take classes is why students from South County are on the received reports.

Oettinger posted the first 20 pages, which she redacted herself, on the Special Education Action website along with acknowledging that she had informed the U.S. Department of Education’s Student Privacy Policy Office about the breach. According to regulations by the department such breaches are supposed to be reported by FCPS and implores parents who have children in South County to report the breaches to the county.

A corresponding article on the website lists several breaches of FERPA rules referred to as the FERPA Violation Report Card for Fairfax County. The list of violations on the article go back to 2017 where county schools have released the information of students, including Oettinger’s own children who are students in the county. The list also contains information on breaches that were shared with Oettinger by parents whose children attend schools within the county. 

In addition to the latest documents, the list also contains a timeline of other data breaches, internal documents, email correspondence, and FERPA requests.

“In response to a high volume FERPA request, an email was provided and attachments were not removed when they should have been,” said Julie Moult, FCPS media relations manager. “FCPS is in the process of tightening its processes and increasing training opportunities in the handling  of data to ensure this cannot happen again.”

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