Update, 8:30 a.m., Oct. 28 I appreciate the comments and the feedback. I’ll reiterate that we had no malicious intentions with our FOIA request.
Here’s a link to my column in this morning’s paper. It explains how I wish our newsroom had been clearer with the school systems about how we planned the information. It was a good learning moment for me. I also wish the school systems had talked more with us before sending out a letter that would have alarmed me if I had gotten it, just as it did many of you. I completely understand the concern that’s being expressed by parents.
Update, 2:45 p.m. A news crew from WDBJ (Channel 7) is coming to the newsroom to talk to me about these FOIA requests. That’s good. It will give me a chance to get this message out to even more people. I’m also going to write a column (very similar to this blog post) for tomorrow’s paper.
In the past two days, I’ve heard from about 20 parents in Giles and Floyd counties asking why one of our reporters sent Freedom of Information requests asking for student directory information from the school systems in those counties.
“Why would you want or need this information? To me this is a good way to get our kids names and addresses into some perverts hands,” one person wrote in an e-mail.
These parents contacted me after the two school systems sent letters, e-mails and voicemail messages alerting parents to our request and offering each family the option to opt out of all FOIA requests for student directory information.
I would have questions too if I got a similar letter six weeks into the school year.
I’ve enjoyed talking with these parents and most have sounded satisfied with the explanation and background I shared. So, I figured I better get it out to a wider group.
So, yes, we did send a Freedom of Information request asking for student directory information, including student names, phone numbers, enrolled schools, enrollment date and grade in school.
We gather this public information to have it available to us as a reporting tool for news stories.
For instance, when a 13-year-old girl was killed in a car accident last week we used student directory information we had gotten from Montgomery County schools to contact the girl’s mother. The mother was able to tell us about her daughter and we published her comments in a story.
After publishing that story last week and realizing how helpful it had been to have the Montgomery County student directory information on file — and we’ve never had any complaints about its release or how it’s been used — we decided to ask for the same information from other area school systems.
We have no plans to publish the directory information in print or online but rather to use it a resource, just as we do the phone book. We can also use it double check the spelling of names when they come to us from some other sources.
The information is public — available not only to us but to anyone else who asks for it — under the state’s Freedom of Information act and the Family Educational Right to Privacy Act (Buckley Amendment). The school system is required to allow parents to opt out of providing this student directory information. I think this is typically done at the beginning of the school year, not when a specific request is made for the information.
It’s my understanding that this same directory information is sometimes requested by companies wanting to market information to student families (class rings, for instance). It can also be used to publicize other news, including sports rosters, honor rolls, awards and scholarships.
I’ll respond to questions here as quickly as possible — or you can drop me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org