Protecting Vital School Records

by Van Carlisle

The second a student enters kindergarten, a set of vital records is created, and this body of information expands throughout a child’s academic career. Vital school records contain highly sensitive, private information, and there is no shortage of laws and policies to govern the handling, management and protection of such information.

As a result, the amount of official documents that a school system is required to maintain is staggering. The list may include critical data relating to budgets, student records, written curriculums, achievement test scores and a host of other official papers and essential information. Regulations differ by state as to how long these files need to be stored, and it is the underlying responsibility of the individual school district to be accountable for the data’s security.

Schools often keep hard copies, microfilm and digital versions of this data but in the event of a disaster, certain measures must be taken to ensure a school district’s responsibility to the public. Many districts already have a written comprehensive disaster recovery plan. Such a plan ensures that vital records are backed up daily and that the district will be able to recover operations more quickly when a major disaster occurs, such as the devastating floods experienced in the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Defining Records
The bottom line in any disaster recovery plan is the identification and protection of vital records. If a vital record is lost, damaged, destroyed or otherwise rendered unavailable, that loss becomes a disaster within a disaster, affecting critical operations needed to recover from the initial disaster. Therefore, protection of vital records should be the main priority (after the protection of human life of course) for contingency and recovery efforts when a disaster occurs.

Karen Perry, a records analyst for the state of New Jersey, recommends school administrators work closely with vendors of records protection solutions. “I harp on disaster prevention, rather than disaster recovery,” she says. “What can you do to set up a system that can protect hardcopy and microfilm? A fireproof filing cabinet is one of the things that will help. Fireproof safes are very nice too.”

Perry includes this advice for local government bodies and school officials in her state in manuals, on her agency’s website and in training sessions.

Before investing in such equipment, it’s important to consider the fireproof qualities, which are rated by Underwriters Laboratory or another nationally known independent testing lab.

Marketing Schemes
In the wake of the Gulf Coast floods, those responsible for vital records protection need to recognize the importance of a water-resistant capability, in addition to fireproofing. One common misconception is that standard, non UL-rated filing equipment can offer adequate protection from fire and water damage.

This thinking is erroneous and potentially dangerous. Price should not be an overriding factor in this decision, and one should steer clear of equipment with non-independent ratings. UL is the best as no other testing and standards organization matches its reputation. A safe or file that carries the UL fireproof rating also is specifically designed to be resistant to water from hoses, sprinkler systems and rain. In addition, a UL-rated fireproof file container will survive collapsing roofs or floors, all common occurrences in a hurricane.

One trick to be wary of is a product that claims to be built to a certain UL class specification. This is marketing-driven word play and it leads the buyer to falsely believe they are getting a product with a UL rating, even though UL has never tested it.

Safe Keeping
One practice that would benefit school administrators is to conduct an inventory. If you had a disaster and you had to reopen the next day, what records would you target? Student records and payroll histories are things you need to keep going. School officials have to be able to pick up the pieces in the wake of a fire emergency, flood or other disastrous event.

“We are required to keep certain records so many years so it’s for our own security that we have those records,” says Linda Komro, executive secretary to the superintendent in Durand, Wis.

“In the superintendent’s office we have personnel records, teacher contracts and board minutes,” Komro says. “Some of our cabinets have been around for many years. We purchased one just recently last year, but the district has been using them for a long time.”

Suzanne Marshall, educational sectors consultant at Nixon Associates in Tallahassee, Fla., recommends fireproof equipment for principals’ offices. Marshall, who formerly worked in the Florida Department of Education facilities department, suggests school districts have archives copied by the secretary of state’s office, while retaining a copy in school offices for convenience.

In Western Grove, Alaska, Cindy Hearn, an elementary school principal, says her office has something she calls “the vault,” a reinforced room where the school maintains many records. “Our bookkeeper has a four-drawer fireproof cabinet,” she says.

“We keep all of the personnel records, school budgets, things you wouldn’t want to lose.”

Van Carlisle is CEO of FireKing, a security and loss prevention firm at 101 Security Parkway, New Albany, IN 47150. E-mail: