13 INVESTIGATES: School Record Security - Alabamas13.com WVTM-TV Birmingham, AL

13 INVESTIGATES: School Record Security

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BIRMINGHAM, AL -

The former Banks Middle School has seen better days.

Its sign is shattered, windows are ripped open and a locked security fence shields the former halls of learning from thieves and vandals.

In fact, recently, even that security barrier was in shambles.

Three gates were wide open.

Brad Hobbs, who graduated from Banks High School in 1978, recently toured the campus with neighborhood resident Richard Rutledge to see how much of the campus was worth salvaging.

Hobbs said the deteriorating condition of the building was not surprising.

Then they stumbled on to student records scattered all over the floor of the guidance counselor's office.

"That's when we discovered that there were documents with names, socials, that kind of stuff.  And that was absolutely shocking. That is the last thing that we expected to find," Hobbs recalled.

Why?

This was a case of confidential record discovery déjà vu on this campus.

In the summer of 2008, more than a year after Banks closed for good, someone found Birmingham News Columnist John Archibald's student records in the same building.

In fact, the Banks High graduate even wrote a column about it, saying, "What a buffet for identity thieves.  Or blackmailers."

He went on to quote a school district spokesperson who pledged they would take the necessary actions to, "ensure this doesn't happen again."

Virginia Volker sits on the Birmingham Board of Education.

Banks School is in her district.

She distinctly remembers the 2008 records incident and the administration's promise to take action.

"As a board members, we were told that that had taken place. That the documents had been removed.

That is true.  That did happen," Volker remembered.

When asked if felt someone lied to her in light of the fact the additional student records were found in the school five years later, she responded, "Obviously, somebody didn't know the truth of the matter."

The truth is whoever removed the records in 2007 missed some.

Do leaving confidential student records behind in a closed school building violate student privacy laws?

The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act prohibit releasing or providing access to personally identifiable information from education records.

So we checked with the Alabama Department of Education.

"When a school closes, they have a couple of options.  They can destroy those records or they can keep them sealed in an area where they are not jeopardized or made available to the public," Alabama Department of Education spokesperson Michael Sibley said.

Sibley said since the school was originally locked up, these discoveries probably do not qualify as releasing or giving access to the records.

So what about the school district's own policy?

The Birmingham School District's guidelines require that inactive student records at a closing school be, "Alphabetized, boxed, labeled and transferred to the Attendance Department at Dupuy for storage."

The former Dupuy Elementary School is located on 14th Avenue North near the airport.  

We decided to find out who is responsible for leaving the student records behind at banks to begin with and hold them accountable.

We requested an interview with a man in charge of the Birmingham School District, but Superintendent Dr. Craig Witherspoon declined.

His office did release a statement, though.

In it, he said,"The district is aware of records and other materials left in Banks when it closed in 2008.  Staff has been working to remove the items."

However, did they get them all this time?

In recent years, the School Board turned the Banks property, and the responsibility for securing the campus over to the City of Birmingham.

Within days of this most recent student record security breach, the City came out and put brand new locks on the open gates and cleared away some overgrown brush.

During their walkthrough inside, they found even more student records.

"When we went in after the school board had been in there.  We found several folders full of information.

So we gathered up three filing boxes just normal filing boxes full of information," the City of Birmingham's Don Lupo pointed out.

"If that was the case, again, somebody is not doing the work," Volker reacted to the revelation that additional school records were found after the School District had ‘removed' the remaining student documents.

Exactly who that somebody is, is still unclear.

Our request to see the contract with the company responsible for removing the records has gone unfulfilled.

One thing is clear, previous promises to prevent this from happening again have fallen short.

"The discovery of documents up here, that is a massive breach of trust.  The parents of this city, most of the people of this city went to the Birmingham Public Schools, they trusted that they would be kept safe while they were being educated.  This is a breach of that trust," Hobbs concluded.

To be fair, the 2008 student record discovery came under a previous school district administration.

Dr. Craig Witherspoon said in addition to their records removal at Banks, they will make sure the records in the seven schools closing this summer will be effectively removed.

They also plan to check that all safeguards were followed at the other 15 schools already closed in Birmingham.

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