University of Alabama Students Face Potential Embarrassment over Email
On October 26, 2011, many students at the University of Alabama received an email informing them that they had at least one failing grade at midterm. There's nothing unusual in that.It's the way that UA typically alerts students to grades that need attention. Unfortunately, the person who sent out the form mail overlooked one of the primary rules of email lists: always blind recipients' names and email addresses.
Students who received the email alerting them to their failing grades also received a complete list of every other student to whom the email had been sent because the office sending the announcement had failed to hit BCC to blind copy the mass email to the students in question. That resulted in each student receiving a list of every other at-risk student as part of the email's address.
Email Lists Blunder May Violate FERPA
The email blunder caused embarrassment to some students and raised questions about a possible violation of federal student privacy laws, which restrict the information an educational institution may share about a student's academic record. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, commonly called FERPA, specifically prohibits educational institutions from sharing or making public students' academic information.
The intent of the 1974 law was to make student educational records accessible to parents and eligible students, while restricting the access of others to those records.
According to an article that appeared in The Crimson White, the university did not comment on whether the accidental revelation might constitute a violation of FERPA.
Attorney advocate Adam Goldstein, however, told the newspaper that the email mishap might not be considered a FERPA violation if it was accidental. The federal law, Goldstein pointed out, prohibits policies that lead to disclosure of academic information to most third parties.
University practice is to blind student email addresses in mass communications, a UA spokesperson told the newspaper.
Some students are understandably upset about the disclosure of their academic information. One woman, a sophomore whose major is in mechanical engineering, said that it's embarrassing to have others know she's not doing well in class. She further pointed out that the university has recently used FERPA to avoid handing over information regarding the resignation of the university's SGA president.
In light of that, she told the newspaper, the accidental revelation of the names of failing students "seems like gross oversight."
Regardless of whether the email blunder represents a violation of FERPA, however, it does highlight the importance of handling personal information carefully when using email lists to avoid unintentional privacy violations that may be violations of the law.