Failing students revealed in UA email

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.”

  • WotcherTonks

    meh. Surely the SGA could help out the students’ GPAs….

  • Jeb

    Just out of curiosity… for all of those arguing that this should be classified as a violation of FERPA… if it were, what would happen next? The University would be vulnerable to lawsuits, they would have to pay out a lot of money and fines, and yet… your name would still be associated with a failing grade. That can’t be undone. I mean, come on folks, it was a mistake on the part of the administration by putting the distribution list in the CC rather than BCC field of the email. It happens. I’ve done it before. You’ve probably done it or something like it before. Do you think paying out thousands or millions of dollars in fines is going to make a hill of beans difference? It will hurt the university’s bottom line which will, in turn, be factored into your tuition next year. Just like how a business passes on higher taxes to the consumer, so too would the university pass on the cost of these lawsuits to you. Fair or not, you lose either way.

  • Ronny Lee

    Once you sign a release statement after graduating anyone can see your grades that is if they pay the thirty five dollars or whatever it is now.  The freedom of information act enables us to see how much or should i say how many people really ask for you grades.  By the way it also shows your medical history as well as your complaints from fellow students, or any complaints.  Bad checks, girlfriend problems, infirmry problem, all could cost you a job that is if they really ever check.  This is an opinion from my experience not to be taken as alabama policy.