Confidential records disposed of incorrectly

More than 250 Elliott School student folders containing sensitive information and marked “confidential trash” turned up in a newspaper recycling bin outside FSK Hall last weekend. But University officials said they are unsure how the records got there.

“I haven’t a clue,” said Tony Dillard, coordinating manager for General Services. Dillard, who oversees Housekeeping Services, said Housekeeping employees pick up sensitive information upon departmental request and disposes of them.

Student records found in the FSK dumpster include social security numbers, high school and college transcripts, photocopies of checks with bank account numbers, a list of professors’ home addresses, course evaluations, academic advising notes about students and financial statements for international students. The files, which are as current as last year, date back to 1991.

Jim Fry, director of advising at the Elliott School of International Affairs, said ESIA cleaned out the file room two weeks ago. He said a request was made to pick up the files, but he was unsure when it was made or acted on.

Fry said current student records are locked in a file room, and old files are cleared out every three or four years.

Once the purged files were boxed two weeks ago, he said, they were kept in the Elliott School office suite in Stuart Hall until they were picked up.

“We can vouch for (the files) as long as (they) were in our possession,” Fry said. “We went through the normal routine.”

Associate Vice President for Academic Planning Craig Linebaugh said University policy requires departments to keep sensitive material confidential.

“Our expectation is that academic records be kept in a secure location, and when they are disposed of they be rendered into a form that one could not extract information,” Linebaugh said.

Linebaugh said all academic departments follow similar procedures.

“I’m more than a little taken aback by (the) discovery,” Linebaugh said. “This absolutely should not happen.”

Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said although student records are protected by the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, the department would only pursue such a case if a student complained.

“Anybody can file a complaint and we would look at it,” Bradshaw said. “If we find a violation, we would work with the school.”

He said although there are no laws governing the disposal of records, the University is still responsible for ensuring unauthorized parties do not view the files.

Linda Schutjer, GW associate general counsel, said she does not feel the University is at risk for legal action regarding the files.

“Certainly the University has sort of our own obligation that we have imposed on ourselves,” Schutjer said. “The obligation (under FERPA) is to not have a policy or practice of disclosing those records.”

Schutjer said if confidential information is put in the trash, “it’s not a disclosure per se.”

“This is not really a legal issue, this is a poor practice we need to work on,” she said. “When I was a student in law school, I certainly sat at the window and watched people look through the trash.”

Dillard said departments are frequently asked to shred highly sensitive information themselves before having it picked up. He said confidential trash is then placed in a secure recycling container.

“We don’t shred, and we don’t burn,” Dillard said.

Fry said that he was unaware that departments are responsible for shredding confidential documents.

“That’s news to me,” he said, adding that ESIA does not own a shredder. “We’ve never been asked to shred anything before.”

By the end of the day Wednesday, Dillard said the pick-up request had been directed to the Transportation Department.

“At this point, I need to investigate what happened,” Dillard said, adding transportation staff will not pick up trash from departments unless there is a large quantity.

ESIA Associate Dean Barbara Miller said she was upset by the incident.

“We feel regretful that anything confidential has gotten into the public domain,” she said.

Linebaugh said the file incident is an unfortunate reality.

“Like any policy around an organization of this size, I would like to say its followed 100 percent,” he said. “I think you’ve found some evidence that that is not the case.”

Fry said Elliott School officials thought the University was “disposing the information safely.”

“This isn’t good,” he said. “The Elliott School will probably purchase a shredder after this.”

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