Students who had at least one failing midterm grade during the Fall 2011 semester received an email on Oct. 26 from the office of Lowell Davis, the assistant dean of students, notifying them of their grade and potential ways to improve it.
Students who received the email were not blind copied in it, however, and were able to see the email addresses of other failing students.
UA spokeswoman Cathy Andreen did not comment as to whether the email was a violation of student privacy rights outlined in federal law. Some of those rights are included in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, a federal law protecting the privacy of students’ educational records that was written in 1974 by then Sen. James Buckley.
“As this situation demonstrates, it is essential to protect students’ personally identifiable information,” Andreen said. “Students’ email addresses are normally blinded and not visible to others receiving the message.”
Andreen also said individuals who fail to follow established privacy procedures will be disciplined.
Adam Goldstein, an attorney advocate with the Student Press Law Center, said if the mass email was an accident, it might not be a violation of FERPA.
“There’s one thing that makes this not a FERPA violation,” Goldstein said. “FERPA doesn’t prevent disclosure [of educational information]. It prevents a policy or practice of doing it.”
However, Goldstein said students do have common law or state-based law privacy rights. Public disclosure of private or embarrassing facts could violate those rights, but it might be hard for students to show they were damaged by the release of this information, Goldstein said.
“Everyone generally recognizes you have a right to privacy in your grades,” he said. “It’s another reason why FERPA is kind of a joke. It doesn’t prevent incidents like this. You can never be stupid enough to violate FERPA.”
Lexi Papadelias, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering who received the email, said she feels like it was a violation of privacy to all of the students on the email list.
“Not doing well in classes is embarrassing,” Papadelias said. “And with all of the emphasis the administration has put on FERPA lately, it seems like a gross oversight.”
On Sept. 28 of this year, University administrators cited FERPA in denying a public records request sent to the SGA for records relating to the resignation of SGA President Grant Cochran.
“Without admission that the information you’ve requested would or would not constitute open records under Alabama law, you appear to be requesting only records that are linked or linkable to a particular student,” UA spokeswoman Deborah Lane said in denying the request. “Such records are prohibited from disclosure by federal privacy laws.”
Goldstein said FERPA is often used to shield inconvenient information.
“How could it be that the time you don’t consider FERPA is when you’re sending emails with failing grades involved?” he said. “FERPA’s always there when they don’t want to give you something.”