I heard some good guidelines today regarding how we should decide what we write down and send to others via email. The recommendations said you should never write what you:

  • would not say aloud
  • would not write in a letter to someone else with your name at the bottom
  • don’t want published in a newspaper

When I attended attorney Celynda Brasher’s presentation “Technology in the Schools: Policy, Privacy and Practical Issues for Teachers, IT and Others” at METC in February 2007, it was amazing to hear about and see some of the actual examples she had of “poor choices” teachers had made with email in the past. Many of these involved snide remarks about parents or students which were disclosed when archived email was obtained in a court subpoena relating to a case involving a student receiving special services. At the time, the teachers never dreamed their quick email message would find its way into a courtroom. Yet each message DID. In some cases, teachers carelessly forwarded messages containing confidential information in an email to others, even providing evidence of their own negligence or failure to adhere to legal policies and guidelines. (In one case she discussed, a teacher had “accidentally” forwarded a message from her principal including damaging statements to the parent who was suing the school district.)

Be careful what you write ANYWHERE, including email messages. Now that text messaging is becoming more common, people may text statements which could be potentially embarrassing or damaging. Remember, if you don’t want to see your statements / words in the newspaper or in a court hearing, don’t write them down or record them in another way!

The recommendations I read also suggested that people do NOT use email to “debate issues,” and that people organize their email (as well as information more generally) so that disposal is easy. Has your school district established policies for archiving electronic as well as paper-based records relating to students? I have heard and read different legal opinions about email archival in the last few months. Some people have conservatively said that schools must archive EVERYTHING on their networks which is sent by users. Some school districts use this legal advice as justification to block outside email programs, like Yahoo Mail and Gmail. Others have indicated that only if litigation is anticipated or is in fact taking place regarding a particular student or situation must email be archived and saved.

My understanding is that some of the new guidelines about required email archival came about because of the Enron debacle. eSchoolNews published an article in December 2006 with the title “Ruling: Schools must archive eMail,” but that title is potentially misleading. Generally, organizations have policies for information disposal, and all records (including email) are NOT required to be preserved for all time. I know when my father was working for a bank several years ago, their legal department decided they would try and start archiving all emails. The result was that small Exchange inbox quotas suddenly ballooned in size, because everything had to be saved. That policy was eventually amended to a more reasonable policy, I think, where some things were saved (depending on the context) and others were deleted after a specified period of time.

As with most legal issues, email archival is a complicated one. If you don’t know your own school district’s policy about email archival, you might ask about it. Maybe they don’t have one yet? If they do not, they should.

Regardless of your local school district’s policy on email, the main point of this post is relevant and good to keep in mind: Be wary of what you say with email. I’ve found that because email is so readily available and fast, often people shoot off an email message instead of picking up the phone. Whenever a topic is controversial or requires some extended discussion, I’ve found that face to face meetings or phone calls are always preferable to lengthy and sometimes heated email exchanges.

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2 Responses to Be wary of saying it with email

  1. “Some people have conservatively said that schools must archive EVERYTHING on their networks which is sent by users.”

    This depends largely on the state in which your district operates.

    For example, in New York and Florida, archiving e-mail isn’t something that “some people” say should happen – and it certainly isn’t a conservative assessment of the situation. It’s the law.

    In those states, e-mail within public schools is a matter of public record. Obviously there are restrictions on what can/can’t be made available via a Freedom of Information Law [or similar] request – I couldn’t have access to e-mails containing confidential information – but communication, as with other public institutions, is to be archived.

    Public right-to-know, Sunshine, and FOIL acts pre-date the Enron fallout by decades.

  2. Wesley Fryer says:

    A bit of clarification:

    Thanks to some encouragement from Matthew Tabor, I’m adding this note of clarification to this post and another I wrote back in February 2007 about email.

    I agree with Matthew that formal documentation by teachers of various issues and situations is very important. I am not discouraging educators from taking the time to document situations thoroughly and properly. I wanting to highlight that as teachers write an email message, a word processing document, a note by hand, or anything else, it is important to remember the public nature of the document which is being crafted. Based on the actual examples of educator emails Celynda Brashner shared in her METC 2007 session on educational legal issues, it is clear some teachers have in the past not had this perception of email. She recounted multiple examples where comments were made which were not appropriate or professional in email, messages were inadvertently sent to all recipients rather than just a colleague, etc.

    Again I want to encourage teachers to recognize the potentially public nature of email. I think this is an important and quite reasonable position to take. We need to be aware of the potential for litigation and the way the words we write can be utilized in court.

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