Accidental grade leak a breach of federal law

By Tui Rademaker, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 24, 2012

With midterms in full swing, many students are constantly refreshing CTools pages for any sign of posted exam results. For those enrolled in Cultural Anthropology 101 with Prof. Andrew Shryock however, they got more than just their own results this week.

An excel spreadsheet containing the results of all the students’s grades — including their names, uniqnames, UM-ID numbers, course sections, exam percentages and the key used to grade each individual’s exam — was accidentally made public when attached to an e-mail sent to them noting that their grades were posted.

Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, releasing students’s academic records is a violation of federal law. There are some exceptions such as in the case of a student transferring to another institution or in the case of financial aid applications that such information can be released.

University Spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an e-mail that while the publication of midterm results is in violation of FERPA, he believes that the inadvertent nature of it will allow the University to simply file a report with the U.S. Department of Education with the appropriate documentation and an explanation that will mitigate any potential FERPA violations.

Chris Berk, the head graduate student instructor for the course, said in an interview that the release was a clerical error and when he sent the spreadsheet to the students he thought that the identifying uniqnames and names of the 435 students had been taken out of the document.

“It was an error,” Berk said. “I spent hours with the spreadsheets and I thought I had gotten rid of all the other information because we take students’ rights and anonymity very seriously.”

The spreadsheet was initially posted at about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday afternoon and Berk said a student quickly notified him of the error. He immediately sent an explanation addressing the issue to the class and reposted the spreadsheet with only UMID numbers and scores.

“Sorry for the confusion. Despite my best efforts to protect anonymity, apparently there are additional ‘tabs’ on excel spreadsheets that change methods of viewing,” Berk wrote in the e-mail sent to the class. “We take protecting your rights very seriously, and this error has been resolved.”

The original spreadsheet is still accessible on the CTools announcement that automatically is sent to students’ University e-mail addresses.

LSA junior Ryan Jacobs, a student in the class, said he was initially unaware of the error and is unsure as to how students will react.

“Frankly, I’m kind of surprised,” Jacobs said. “I’m sure there are students that are upset about it because, you know, not everyone did well on that exam”.

Berk said he deeply regrets the entire incident.

“I would hope that students would understand that it was 100 percent clerical error, not intentional,” Berk said. “I feel terrible about this — I take this stuff very seriously.”