Minority student information improperly accessed

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Mom angered when daughter brings home request for grad student’s research

By Meaghan Downs

Anderson County school officials have admitted that an administrator improperly accessed personal information on 70 to 80 minority students, angering at least one mother and prompting changes to the district’s policies over who can access student information.
Karen Harris said her daughter’s personal information was improperly accessed through the district’s internal student information system Infinite Campus because a graduate student needed a list of African American and bi-racial students to interview to complete his master’s degree.
Harris said middle school administrators called her daughter out of class on Aug. 22, handing the student a letter to give to her parents when she got home from school.
The letter — the cover stamped with the name and address of the Anderson County High School — explained that Paul Blackhurst, a graduate student at Eastern Kentucky University, would be conducting a study of African American and bi-racial children’s perceptions of the police in rural communities.
Blackhurst is also currently the school resource officer for the high school.
Participation is voluntary, the signed letter said, and attached to the letter was a parent and guardian permission form approved by Eastern Kentucky University’s Internal Review Board.
Superintendent Sheila Mitchell said in an e-mail to Harris that she gave Blackhurst approval to send permission slips home to all students, but later found out that Director of Student Services Derek Shouse ran a list of students based on their race using Infinite Campus after Blackhurst asked for the information.
Harris said she contacted Shouse to see if he could serve as an impartial third-party on the issue, and learned from Shouse (who Harris said apologized for his error) that he gave the list to Blackhurst.
Mitchell confirmed Friday that Shouse was indeed the staff member who gave Blackhurst a list of students to contact for his graduate study.
“I do not believe Mr. Shouse gave [Blackhurst] access for any ill intent,” Mitchell said.
Blackhurst said in a phone interview Monday that he believed his request to receive a list of African-American and bi-racial students from Shouse was acceptable directory information, and he said he would never have requested the information if he knew it should not be released by the district.
He said he and Shouse were both under the impression that compiling a list of information based on a student’s race was a matter of public record, and that requesting and receiving the list was an “honest mistake.”
Blackhurst said he did not conduct or complete graduate degree work while performing his duties as a school resource officer, and that the district and the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office were aware of his study.  
 “As I responded to you in letter, procedures were not followed,” Mitchell wrote to Harris in her e-mail. “I have put procedures in place to ensure the access to IC [Infinite Campus] is not allowed to SROs [school resource officers].”
Harris said she was told by Mitchell that about 70-80 letters went out to middle school and high school students requesting permission for Blackhurst’s study. Harris said she also received a One Call notification from the middle school, asking parents to allow their children to participate.
“Her information was improperly obtained to do that,” Harris said. “[Blackhurst’s] study could be about white children who live with their grandparents …,” Harris said. “You can’t single kids out period, especially when it has nothing to do with the school system.”
She said she has no problem with Blackhurst, or African American and bi-racial children as the subject of Blackhurst’s study, but believes school resources were wasted and is concerned that administrators do not know what is being distributed to students.
“You do need to know what you’re handing out to children,” Harris said.
According to Harris, who met with middle school administrators the first week of September, no one there was aware of the contents of the letter given to Harris’ daughter.
Harris said she feels like her daughter was not only singled out, but that she’s concerned that her information was being distributed for something not directly related to her education.
“I don’t have a problem with who obtained the information,” Harris said. “I believe whoever gave [Blackhurst] permission to do that would be at fault.”
Harris called Superintendent Mitchell about her concerns with the letter, and in a letter sent to Harris on Aug. 29, Mitchell confirmed to Harris that procedures were not followed in distributing the letter to middle and high school students, and that Mitchell was taking steps to ensure school information would be confidential.
Mitchell said in a phone interview Friday afternoon that any type of communication requested to be sent to students must be sent to her office, approved by Mitchell, then a copy of what was approved is sent to building principals to let them know that it can be sent out to students.
Mitchell said she did not see the contents of the letter sent to students regarding Blackhurst’s study. She had spoken with Blackhurst over the phone and requested a copy of his request. Mitchell said there was a bad phone connection and Blackhurst may not have heard her request for a copy of his permission form to be sent to her before they were distributed to students.
Mitchell wrote in a follow-up e-mail to Harris on Sept. 6 that she was aware Blackhurst wanted to conduct research, and Mitchell thought letters regarding Blackhurst’s request for parent permission would be going out to all students, not a specified group.
Mitchell and Blackhurst confirmed Friday afternoon that Blackhurst has not conducted any interviews and will not be interviewing any Anderson County students.
All similar requests for research will not be approved unless requested through the Kentucky Department of Education, Mitchell said in a follow-up e-mail sent Monday morning to The Anderson News.
Harris said she plans to attend the Sept. 23 board meeting to inform school board members of what occurred.
She said she would like to see all parents who received the initial written request to be interviewed for Blackhurst’s study to also receive letters from Mitchell apologizing for the information breach.
Mitchell said Monday that those parents that were contacted in the beginning for permission to participate in the study will be notified and that letters about the district’s error are in the mail.
Mitchell told Harris in an e-mail on Sept. 9 that she has informed the board of her investigation, and that she keeps the board informed of parent concerns.
Mitchell said in a follow-up e-mail Monday morning that she has also consulted the district’s attorney regarding the distribution of personal information and the letters sent home to students.

What is Infinite Campus?
Infinite Campus is an internal student information system that houses a variety of student data from grades to curriculum to assignments to student health information.
Infinite Campus can be accessed by staff, students, parents and administrators, but not everyone has access to all information or data in the system.
There is a student and parent portal that requires a username and password, but students and parents cannot access the same information as administrators, according to Superintendent Sheila Mitchell.
Even teachers from other schools cannot access or print off reports on students in another school, and have limited entry to the system at home, Mitchell said.
Mitchell said school resource officers should not have access to Infinite Campus. According to Mitchell, a previous administration allowed school resource officers to have directory only access to Infinite Campus, but school resource officers no longer have any access to the Infinite Campus.  
The Kentucky Department of Education mandated that all school districts statewide use Infinite Campus in 2006, according to the Infinite Campus website.