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Monday, May 16, 2022

Release of Student Records Prompts Privacy Concerns

Author: Tim McCahill and Devin Zatorski, News Editors

The release and recall of information pertaining to the academic records of the Class of 2002 has raised new concerns about student privacy and confidentiality among members of the College administration. On Oct. 19, Director of Undergraduate Records Lucinda Belanger explained the incidents in an e-mail to the senior class.

According to the e-mail, "[a] senior came to request some data for a research project that the student planned to complete by the end of the fall term ... The data this student requested was related to the numbers of students who have graduated in the past five years in the upper and lower 5 percent of their class and included gender and major." Belanger went on to write that the data — which included statistics for this year's graduating class — contained neither student names nor ID numbers, but rather data that could not be considered "personally identifiable."

Shortly after Belanger released the information, the student discussed the research project "with a small number of suitemates," according to the e-mail. These acquaintances, after some speculation, were able to deduce whom among their circle of friends "might or might not be in the ranges included in the data," wrote Belanger. "It became an issue for one student, who feels his privacy has been violated," she continued. "He has chosen not to bring changes against the student who shared the data, but does want to be sure that this kind of thing does not happen again."

In an interview yesterday afternoon, Belanger said "the data is meaningless to me, but I don't live on the hall with the student and know that student is of a particular major designation." By virtue of Middlebury's small student body, the information released was, in some cases, "traceable" to specific members of the senior class.

Belanger cited in her e-mail that her decision to furnish the data was in line with the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which is also known as the Buckley Amendment. FERPA, according to page 97 of the College Handbook, "provides certain rights for students with respect to student educational records." These include, among other things, "[the] right to inspect and review the student's education records within 45 days [of the College's] request for access," as well as "[the] right to request the amendment of the education records if the student believes they are inaccurate, misleading or in violation of privacy rights."

The College lists current transcripts, dates of entrance, the honor code pledge and records of disciplinary action as examples of student records. (For a more detailed description, see gray box.)

Belanger explained that a college official with "legitimate educational interests" may be granted access to student records and, on occasion, this privilege may be extended to students who conduct research for College committees.

The incident in question involved a student using the data for both committee research and a class project.

According to Associate Provost Tim Spears, the institution "has the right to share information with itself on a need-to-know basis." He said this incident "took [on] a life of its own" after the information spread beyond its intended audience,

Belanger said, "I accept responsibility for having released that information without thoroughly checking that the student had a faculty supervisor on the committee allowing her to do the research."

In addition, Belanger admitted to neglecting to obtain a signed confidentiality agreement from the student, although the two did verbally affirm the importance of confidentiality in handling student records.

As a result of the incident, Belanger will "no longer release data about currently enrolled students that would be traceable to a specific individual," she explained, adding that she also plans to require a signed confidentiality statement upon release of records in the future.

She characterized the decision to provide the student with academic data as "an error in judgment," but maintained that she did not "expect it to go into other hands besides [those of] the researcher."

She has requested that the student discontinue her research and return the data to the Undergraduate Records Office, where it will be shredded.