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Lack of faculty disclosure guidelines leaves students vulnerable

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a committee had not been formed to address critical flaws in the school’s student privacy policy. A committee based in the Dean of Students Office has convened. 

Two years after a memo alerted Carleton administration to critical flaws in the school’s student privacy policy, the college has yet to issue any guidelines for faculty disclosure of student information. In a 2008 memo, Professor Roy Grow—a ten year veteran of the National Security Agency—showed that Carleton’s official policy regarding the release of student information does not reflect the school’s actual practice. Grow said that many faculty and students do not have a clear understanding of what must be divulged to security clearance investigators and what might be kept confidential. The policy, Grow said, is disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst, and has caused serious personal and professional peril for former students.

Though Carleton has a strict policy regarding the retention of personal and academic documents, it does not inform students that faculty and staff may divulge personal and academic information legally, at any time. Grow said that students will often share information with faculty about disciplinary issues, social problems or health concerns in confidence, never thinking that that information could be part of a government record. Faculty members then feel pressured to recall that information to investigators, whether they remember it clearly or not, and students are then vulnerable from information they never expected to surface.

Since the increased security post-9/11, more and more government jobs require top-secret clearance and many Carleton students and recent graduates undergo background investigations to pursue these opportunities. The investigated students sign release of information (ROI) forms authorizing government investigators to gain access to educational and personal records. Besides CIA and FBI employment, students might be investigated when applying for positions in the Departments of Justice, Defense, and State, jobs on the staffs of senators and representatives, spots on US government language fellowships, undergraduate internships, and jobs at high-tech firms with government contracts. Grow estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of political science majors will undergo an investigation between their sophomore year and fifth reunion.

Professor Beverly Nagel is the Dean of Carleton College and a professor of sociology and anthropology. Nagel said that Carleton does not have guidelines or policy for what faculty should or should not say to investigators, or information regarding their rights in answering questions.

Nagel said that all new faculty members are trained regarding student privacy, but admitted that the training only involves the rules around the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). That information and training does not apply to background investigations. The ROI form signed by the applicant—in combination with the powers of the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act—override any obligation faculty have to withhold student information.

“Having an institution like Carleton say that you cannot say X, Y, and Z could be destructive to students trying to get jobs,” Nagel said. “We need to leave that call up to the faculty member.”

Nagel admitted that when an investigator shows up before a professor unannounced, it is tough to decide what information should be shared.

“I think it’s the general practice, given the fact that these records are destroyed, that faculty wouldn’t answer questions about disciplinary records, but [the professors] could be put under oath themselves,” Nagel said. When asked whether professors know their rights regarding what they can choose to withhold, Nagel said it was her hunch that faculty are not as informed as they should be.

“I think that most check out what they are legally required to do, but there isn’t a 100% guarantee there,” Nagel said. Investigators typically ask faculty questions about their knowledge of disciplinary accusations against the former student, general conduct and character concerns, and whether that professor has any written records or notes about the student.

Nagel was asked how she would respond if an investigator questioned her about the mental health of a student who eight years earlier said she felt depressed and needed counseling and medication amid her senior comprehensive exercise.

 “It’s a tough call. It seems like the easy answer would just be ‘no, I’m not aware,’ but there are certainly situations where that information would be pertinent,” Nagel said. “If I say, ‘I’m not willing to answer,’ that would be a red flag to the investigator and possibly hurt the student. I would probably say, ‘yes, I remember that student visiting the wellness center for some depression,’ but I hope that would not be a big detriment to the student getting the job.”

According to Grow, the crux of background investigations is not the information agents find, but whether that information is in line with what the applicant reported on written questionnaires and during polygraph lie-detector tests. According to college policy, Wellness Center records—this would include any psychological or psychiatric treatment—are discarded after seven years. If an applicant presumes that the only evidence of that treatment is the college record, the student may not list that information on an application. If investigators perceive the applicant is attempting to hide pertinent details of her past, Nagel’s disclosure could cost the former student a job and even lead to a federal perjury charge.

“Carleton doesn’t have any protection or rules or counseling to faculty about these issues,” Grow said. Grow advises students to be scrupulously honest when applying to the positions, regardless of how painful or seemingly irrelevant the information may be. Grow suggests students go to the various offices that contain academic, disciplinary and other records and review them for accuracy. According to FERPA, institutions are mandated to allow students access to their education records, and they must provide the opportunity for students to seek to have them amended.

When asked about how he would respond to an investigator who asked about the mental health of a former student, Grow said that he tries not to know about student personal information like health records, sexual activities, partying or disciplinary records.

“Inevitably I come into contact with that information, but most of the time the details are sparse enough that I’m safe to say, ‘I don’t recall,’” Grow said. “For the number of students I have, and my general lack of clarity I have in most of these situations, the most honest and complete answer I can give is, ‘I don’t recall.’”

Nagel, who was not Dean of the College in 2008 when Grow first submitted his memo, said that she would not object to a statement on the policy website that said faculty and staff may disclose information no longer stored in college records. She admitted that privacy education would greatly benefit the community.

When investigators come to campus, which is usually several times each term, they make rounds at several campus offices inspecting files. According to the FBI website, they are looking for information that shows whether applicants are reliable, trustworthy, of good conduct and character and loyal to the United States. Investigators typically visit the registrar’s office and view transcripts and degree audits to find the names of faculty members with whom that student had taken multiple classes. The more classes a student takes with one professor, the more likely the relationship between the two is close, and the more information the professor has to share.

“The government needs to know certain information, but as we have seen recently, bad information causes lots of trouble and it can go to the highest level,” Grow said.

Investigators’ principal stop at Carleton is the Dean of Students Office. Tammy Anderson, a senior administrative assistant, said agents visit her multiple times each term.

“They show me the ID and the authorization, and then I can help them get what they need,” Anderson said. Anderson keeps the ROI forms on file in the office for each investigation. Agents often want to see housing documents and all work contracts related to the investigated student, and always ask to speak with supervisors and review disciplinary records.

According to Carleton Student Privacy policy, records of disciplinary status up to, and including, disciplinary probation are maintained until graduation or until two years after withdrawal from the college. Anderson goes through academic dishonesty files by hand each year and throws away those belonging to the graduating class. Another administrative assistant sorts files relating to other disciplinary actions and tosses those by hand as well. If a student were caught vandalizing property, cheating on exams, or smoking marijuana, files indicating these offences would be destroyed upon graduation.

While Carleton’s disciplinary records are theoretically destroyed after graduation, Security Services keeps all incident reports that would contain detailed descriptions of drug use on campus.

“We keep the incident reports forever,” said Wayne Eisenhuth, the Director of Carleton’s Security Services. “I’ve been here 24 years and we don’t throw any out. Maybe for the last 15 years they’ve all been online.” Eisenhuth said he gets agents in his office asking for reports, but he doesn’t budge— even when faced with ROI forms.

“I tell them to go to the Dean’s office; that’s where they have the disciplinary records,” Eisenhuth said. Despite the fact that he sends them away every time, the investigators always stop by the security office and ask first. “It’s procedure I suppose, it’s probably their rule that they ask.”

Anderson said she has never come across a disciplinary document that was accidentally left in a student’s personal record or felt uncomfortable about whether the information she was handing over was in line with the Carleton’s records policy.

“It’s not a big concern, though,” Anderson said, “We get that form where students turn over just about everything.”

The ROI form has a specific paragraph that exonerates any record keeper from handing over information that violates college policy or student agreements. The paragraph states that the investigated student agrees to authorize custodians of records (like Tammy Anderson) to release any information relating to the applicant’s activities, regardless of any previous agreements to the contrary.

A faculty member who wished not to be identified said that the waiver students sign is completely voluntary, and it is largely the responsibility of the student to understand the consequences of their on-campus conduct and what they choose to disclose. Grow said that for all intents and purposes the waivers are not voluntary, because students need to undergo the investigations to get jobs.

“Students have no choice but to sign the release and trust Carleton will do what it says it will do.”

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