Tulsa Public Schools may have violated multiple current or former students’ privacy rights afforded under federal law if it failed to protect confidential student records a Tulsa woman said she found in large metal trash receptacles behind McKinley Elementary School on Sunday evening.
The records include gifted and talented learning documents and state test score results for individual students who likely attended McKinley in the mid-2000s or early 2010s, according to the dates on the documents. The information falls under the description of personally identifiable information, which is protected from disclosure under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, otherwise known as FERPA.
The Tulsa World reviewed the documents and saw the records of at least three students.
“There are absolutely no circumstances under which it would be acceptable for confidential student information to be discarded rather than destroyed,” district spokeswoman Emma Garrett Nelson said in a text message.
She said later that on Tuesday evening the district retrieved the documents from the woman who reportedly found them, and she said the documents are now stored for safe-keeping.
“Principal (Lynnette Dixon) is working to determine details around how this happened, but we believe that old boxes were mistakenly thrown out during start-of-school cleaning,” said Garrett Nelson.
An Oklahoma State Department of Education spokeswoman said there would not be a penalty from the state because of the information breach, but she said the students or their parents could file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education.
The spokeswoman also said a state regional accreditation officer could follow up with the school to make sure that proper procedures are in place.
The documents, as well as several boxes worth of school supplies, were discovered by Katt Knight in the large metal trash receptacles outside the school.
Knight said she became aware that workers had put items from the school into the receptacles. When she dug through them, she said, she was shocked to find books, CDs, unused worksheets and educational tools along with the student records.
“There is no excuse for this kind of negligence on Tulsa Public Schools’ part,” Knight told the Tulsa World. Her discoveries were first reported by Tulsa TV station KJRH.
“I’m outraged,” she said.
Garrett Nelson said that when typical district procedure is followed, front-office staff members shred confidential documents on site or take them to the district administrative offices to be shredded.
“It is clear that, in this case, that our practice was not followed,” said Garrett Nelson. She said the district connected with Knight on Tuesday evening and plans to contact family members of the affected students.
Knight collected the items in her north Tulsa home, where she currently home-schools her young daughter. Among the hundreds of items she found were dozens of books spanning areas of study, two dozen rulers, modeling clay, protractors, pencil bags, new glue sticks, fake money, unopened teacher’s guides, educational math tools, unused math sheets, a dictionary, magnetic vocabulary words, planners, a dry-erase board and a small bongo drum.
“They say that these books are outdated, that they can’t be used. … Just because it’s outdated doesn’t mean you can’t use it,” Knight said.
After organizing the items, Knight said she plans to make donations to a day care for children with special needs, a domestic violence service and families who home-school their children.
“This is free education right here,” she said. “This is knowledge.”