School, county officials say more on student info breach

Officials from both the school system and the county have now made additional statements concerning The Patriot’s article last week concerning county employees finding confidential student information scattered along the hallways of the old Pulaski Middle School.

The PMS building was closed in the spring of 2020 because the newly constructed Pulaski County Middle School made it obsolete, and students began attending the new school in the fall of 2020.

Between Spring 2020 and fall 2021, the old middle school was broken into on more than one occasion.

The school board eventually transferred ownership of the old middle school building to the county, and when county employees entered the building last month, they found confidential student and faculty  records spread across the floor.

When informed of this, Pulaski County Administrator Jonathan Sweet emailed School Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers to alert him about this potentially dangerous breach of privacy.

The Patriot received copies of this email on Wednesday, Oct. 27 and before publishing its contents, asked Siers for a response.

In the meantime, county administrator Sweet issued a statement.

“We were under the impression when the school board handed over the building that it was free and clear of all … sensitive parent, teacher and student information.”

The school administration issued its response fully a week later on the afternoon of Thursday, Nov. 4, wherein PCPS offered to “provide complimentary 12-month credit monitoring for all students and teachers impacted by this event.”

Tuesday’s school board meeting ended with Siers and School Board Chairman Timmy Hurst responding to this potential breach of privacy.

Superintendent Siers stated that Pulaski County Public Schools acted in good faith in turning PMS over as quickly as possible.

According to Siers, the school had expected to have a full year to clean out the building but that it was done in, “less than nine months because the county had expressed a fear of the developer losing interest in the property, as well as windows closing on their funding opportunities.”

Siers also mentioned a formal request by Board of Supervisors Chairman Joe Guthrie at, “our December 2020 board meeting, where he stated that Pulaski Middle School did not need to be cleaned out because the developer was ready to take the building as is.”

In his final statement of the meeting, Chairman Hurst said, “All aspects of this situation are disappointing.  The information that was leaked to a local newspaper as well as to a private citizen was leaked was leaked by a member of the board of supervisors. The school board knows the name of the member of the board of supervisors who leaked that information. We don’t know why. We don’t know what they expected to gain from leaking that information.

It’s also distracting to the school system and the school board, and it’s also distracting from what our superintendent deals with on a daily basis. The job of the school board is to provide and do everything that we can to promote and provide the best educational experience for children in Pulaski County. That is what we need to be focused on.”

Hurst said he would not be sharing the name of the member of the board of supervisors who leaked the information at the meeting.

“That is for the board of supervisors to deal with,” he said.

Sweet responded with the following statement:

“The statement of facts given by the Superintendent were not entirely accurate as to why there was personnel, personal and sensitive teacher, parent and student information left behind in the Pulaski Middle School. The County did indeed respectfully request the school board carry out an expedited hand-over of the facility, but in title only, in order to simply move the redevelopment of the property forward. We did not in any way request that they leave substantial amounts of personnel, personal and sensitive teacher, parent and student information in an unattended building.

“Furthermore, the Superintendent was aware that the facility had been broken into and it is my understanding that he made no attempt to retrieve any sensitive teacher, parent and student information from PMS following that account.

“As previously stated, County staff diligently contacted school personnel on Tuesday, Oct. 26 to come and remove sensitive materials from the premises that were discovered during the extensive cleaning out of the facility. School staff retrieved some of those sensitive materials, but left what appears to be vaccination records all over the floors of the hallways. These were accessed and spread throughout the building by the perpetrators of a previous breaking and entering incident.

“My only intent by taking a picture of the exposed documents that were left behind and sending it to the Superintendent by way of email marked “IMPORTANT” on Oct. 27, was to communicate a level of seriousness and urgency and plead with him to once and for all retrieve these sensitive documents.

“I was pleased when he responded and later sent someone over to sweep up these highly sensitive documents from the floors of the vacated school, especially considering he had been notified that trustees from the NRV Jail were in the building to assist in cleaning the tremendous amount of surplus items left behind.

“It was, however, with extreme disappointment I learned that it wasn’t until Friday, Oct. 29 that the Superintendent sent over a team of school personnel to once again finish the important task and satisfy the school board’s responsibility and obligation of securing and protecting sensitive teacher, parent and student information.

“The Board of Supervisors and County staff was and is in no way part of any negligence associated with the failure to secure and maintain personnel, personal and sensitive teacher, parent and student information.

“Furthermore, it is the school board’s obligation under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99) to protect the privacy of student education records and as such, they are also responsible for the safe keeping of their students’ sensitive medical records and personal information, such as social security numbers.

“The Board of Supervisors, County Administrator and county staff should not be responsible for having to remind the superintendent of this important responsibility of the school board, nor should we be publicly denigrated in a prepared statement read aloud in a public meeting for our sincere efforts to protect and safeguard the numerous teachers, parents and students who may have been affected by the negligent handling of sensitive information left in their care.

“This is a perfect example of no good deed going unpunished.  But I don’t want to make this about me or the way the school board and superintendent choose to misrepresent and mischaracterize the actual events and motivations behind the actions that took place to safeguard sensitive materials. This should simply be about all those potentially affected by the failure to properly and legally secure the personal and sensitive information of our most precious resource – our children.”

Guthrie also stated he would have a response to the school board and superintendent either prior to or at the Board of Supervisors’ next meeting, Nov. 29.

By WILLIAM PAINE, For The Patriot