Breaking with FCPS Tradition, Superintendent Michelle Reid Chooses Systemic Change Instead of Staying the Course

Superintendent Michelle Reid just did what no Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) superintendent or school board member has ever done (at least not to my knowledge):

1. Admitted FCPS is at fault for systemic FERPA noncompliance (maintenance of, access to, and security of student educational records) and is owning the systemic noncompliance;

2. Hired an independent law firm to do an investigation, committed to sharing the findings of the investigation, saw that the investigation was completed in what to my knowledge is record time for FCPS; and today shared a summary of the findings;

3. Committed to fully addressing the noncompliance and implementing the changes recommended as a part of the investigation findings;

4. Acknowledged the misinformation that followed the letters FCPS mailed in its attempt to address the October 2023 FERPA violation;

5. Took steps to address the misinformation, even though her legal team said it wasn't required;

6. Met in person with the parent about whom the misinformation was shared (in this case, me), and subsequently communicated through calls, emails, and texts, offering an opportunity to include input in the email she planned to release to the FCPS community, in an effort to help clarify what happened and address steps forward; and

7. Committed to investigating the documents found that indicate FCPS staff engaged in concerning behaviors and decision making regarding FCPS students, to include but not limited to the following:

a. Central office staff and legal counsel knew that a program it spent years pushing division wide on students who have Dyslexia isn't intensive enough for them; that FCPS tried to convince at least one hearing officer otherwise; and that FCPS planned to try to convince another hearing officer otherwise, too. (See: FCPS Knew Reading Program Wasn’t Intensive Enough for Students Who Have Dyslexia, Proposed it Anyway - Special Education Action)

b. Central office staff intentionally blocked experts from attending IEP meetings.

c. Central office staff control IEP meetings, because they don't want school-based staff to make proposals that, as one example, might not be sustainable and/or might be at high risk for noncompliance (even though IEPs are supposed to be based on what students need, not what is/isn't sustainable or FCPS' problems with noncompliance).

d. Central office staff refused independent educational evaluations (IEE) for students based on who their parent is, rather than on the need of the student—and then refused to file for due process pursuant to federal and implementing state regulations to defend FCPS' refusal. (See: 2019.09.19-Dawn-on-IEE-refusal_Redacted.pdf)

e. Central office staff knew FCPS' IEE fee caps were below market rate, but insisted on keeping the rates, and then characterized parents who pointed this out as problems. (See: "16 Years of Noncompliance: Virginia Department of Education Fails Students and to Perform Its General Supervisory Duties)

Admitting and Owning Noncompliance, Taking the Step to Clarify Misinformation

Since 2016 I've made FCPS aware of FERPA violations—and am heading into my 6th year of filing complaints about FCPS' privacy breaches.

(See: FERPA Violation Report Card: Fairfax County Public Schools and VDOE and FCPS Failing Streak: Seven Years of Failing to Prevent Inadvertent Disclosure)

FCPS' Previous Response

FCPS repeatedly stated it didn't have systemic problems.

Former Superintendent Scott Brabrand and/or his staff repeatedly stated FCPS takes privacy seriously; that on the occasions Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) found FCPS in noncompliance, that FCPS deeply regretted the human error and that staff would receive more training; and, on various occasions advised state officials that FCPS had addressed my privacy concerns. Yet, the violations continued repeatedly throughout every year between 2016 and now (sometimes multiple times within a few weeks).

Scott and/or other staff members reacted like a washing machine stuck on a rinse and repeat cycle. Same dirt identified, same method to attempt rinsing out the dirt, same messaging before/during/after rinsing attempts—and then repeat.

FCPS' Due Process & Eligibility Office's and Department of Special Services Office's Current

December 21, 2023:

In response to a state complaint I filed with VDOE, Due Process & Eligibility Coordinator Kristina Roman emailed VDOE a letter signed by Terri Edmunds-Heard, Interim Assistant Superintendent, Department of Special Services, which states:

"FCPS denies that it has engaged in systemic violations of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), or the IDEA’s federal and state implementing regulations.

And yet, in the preceding days—and in an email released about two hours later, Michelle Reid admitted FCPS has systemic changes that need to be made regarding security of student records.

Superintendent Michelle Reid's Response

December 18, 2023:

Michelle and I met at her office and had a frank, honest, conversation—something that never occurred with Scott Brabrand or school board members. Where they were MIA when I made them aware of fraudulent charging related to college transcripts, noncompliant fee charging and other noncompliance related to students with IEPs or 504 Plans, and/or unreasonable delays in refunding (or never refunding) fees FCPS shouldn't have charged, Michelle made time to talk, to the point we met about half a dozen times in person between December 20, 2022, and December 18, 2023.

However, even though we'd met a number of times, I'd lost faith. Every time I included her on a complaint, it ended up being handled by the same team that repeatedly denies noncompliance rather than fixing it—and then same noncompliance continued, with FERPA violations being one of the longest running examples. I knew she couldn't handle everything, but began thinking that she wouldn't be able to turn around FCPS' problems, either.

December 18th proved different. After making her aware of FERPA noncompliance for almost a year, and after the same FERPA noncompliance continued, December 18th was the turning point. She had a sense of the problems and was committed to fixing them. We discussed the following when we met:

1. The letters FCPS mailed to families, which weren't clear and incorrectly led parents to believe their kids' private medical records, IEPs, and other such documents were released and published.

Michelle started with an apology to me:

"I'm sorry. This has been obviously difficult for you."

2. How to address FCPS parents' incorrect understanding of what occurred.

We discussed the letter FCPS mailed and how it led parents to believe records were released and published that weren't actually released and published; how the majority of the released information actually consisted of students' names in spreadsheets, not individual records; and that concerning emails between FCPS staff members and other concerning staff-related documents, not medical records, IEPs, and/or personally identifiable information was what was published.

Michelle went over the drafted letter addressing this:

"And then it's, the paragraph goes on to say, as we have shared, this incident occurred during an in-person review of documents related to the parent's own child. At that time, information relating to other current FCPS students was inadvertently and unknowingly made accessible to the parent. Most of the information related to other students was contained in spreadsheets that listed a student's name with few if any other details. I know there were some that had more. Which I think kind of takes the temperature down, I hope."

I suggested pointing out that these weren't individual records for students, for added clarity:

"Maybe this needs to be shared, because when you talk about the spreadsheets, and maybe you need to say, there was not one individual, you know, it wasn't like there was a file for every single student. . . for the most part, almost all the files, were just emails with my kids, and attachments."

I brought up the issue of the community thinking I stole the information, because of how the original letter was worded, and that it was important that this be cleared up.

Michelle repeated that the letter said:

"We made it accessible to you, that's what this letter says."

I expressed that I didn't think that was enough to clear it up, that there were some rabid people coming after me based on that false information.

Michelle replied:

"Well, I'm happy to talk with those rabid people."

I understood she was sending another letter even though it wasn't required, and left it at that. She was taking a step to clarify a situation that she wasn't technically required to make and I appreciate that action

3. That I repeatedly said I deleted the records and would be fine with signing something stating this.

While talking about the letter she was sending out under her name, Michelle said:

"I want to make sure that I'm able to say that you've agreed to delete all that's unredacted."

I reminded her that I had already deleted the records and said that I'd be fine with signing something, but that I had one caveat:

"I don't want a letter going out saying that I agreed to delete it. I want it saying that I deleted it. Because otherwise it's still sounds like I've been holding on to this stuff for almost two months now, and I haven't."

Michelle suggested the following, to which I agreed:

"I think it would be better if we said, the parent has certified that she has deleted your student information involved in this incident. I mean, that's pretty straightforward. And it's, I think, a stronger statement."

4. The investigation FCPS conducted and systemic changes that would be implemented.

Michelle addressed some of the systemic changes to come:

"So I think there's probably a tension between what do we do with all the old records, versus new records moving forward, and trying to make sure that we're accurate.

"So I think that I will definitely make sure that staff, not just staff internally, but externally, take a look at what we could, and maybe it's talking to folks in the medical field directly to your point, because that's where we have some really good exemplars of that. And I think, given our recent history, I think it bears looking at to be blunt.

"We also have some training related changes. And then the organizational structure where FERPA and FOIA even sit. . . .And also organizationally different, like one of the things is moving the Office of Public Records and the Procedural Department of Special Services outside of Special Services, and outside of communication. Those have to sit under the division Council, period. So anything that's an administrative hearing that sits in DSS needs to be pulled out."

5. The continuing investigation into the employee emails I also found within my kids' records, which indicate FCPS staff have engaged in retaliation and taken other concerning actions.

I asked Michelle what FCPS was doing to address these emails and she stated the following:

"So I have asked a colleague of Beth's in the firm of Woods Rogers, to review all of the emails to give me a summary on an assessment on retaliation. I, there are 1000s of emails, as you know, so they're going through all of those."

After I asked if there was a timeline for the completion of this investigation, she said,

"I don't have an ETA, but I would say a couple of weeks."

6. How FCPS might look to hospitals and doctors as models for records management, since they, like FCPS, have a large number of sensitive records that have to be secured and preserved, and have electronic and other systems in place FCPS could potentially tap into instead of recreating the wheel.

I mentioned how FCPS routinely claims "human error" after releasing kids' records, but if the records were for patients or CIA operatives, it wouldn't be acceptable—and then gave the example of how paper records are handled in some medical offices and/or hospitals:

"If there's a new piece of paper, they give that piece of paper to a filing room, that piece of paper has a barcode on it, that barcode with the piece of paper is scanned, because it has the barcode. It can only go to one record. It will not go anywhere else."

We went back and forth and she mentioned the use of Bates numbering had been brought up:

"And I liked the idea that you shared earlier about going fully electronic and cutting down on human error. I think that's really important. There's a term called being Bates labeled, or all numbered if we do any kind of hard copy."

Since students already have IDs associated, I mentioned connecting those IDs to barcodes—and then we both acknowledged the difficulty of dealing with the present situation and transitioning at the same time.

However, it's a step forward and more than the training previous Superintendent Scott Brabrand repeatedly said FCPS was doing.

December 20, 2023:

Michelle called to go over the email we worked on in person, on December 18th. During the call, she mentioned the already completed investigation and stated:

"So and we're implementing, this letter says we're implementing all of their recommendations. So, it's clear that we have systemic changes we needed to make, and I'm owning that."

Independent Investigation, Sharing Summary of Investigation, Implementing Recommended Changes, & Commitment to Investigate Concerning Information About FCPS Staff

FCPS' Previous Response

Transparency and FCPS are casual acquaintances. They've met up a few times, but often they don't interact.

Since 2020, there are two investigations that come to mind, which to my knowledge were never released:

Internal Investigation of Blackboard Remote-Learning Platform (for which law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth billed FCPS over $300,000.

Investigation Into "Cyber Incident" (for which Hunton Andrews Kurth also billed FCPS)

FCPS' December 2022 legal audit states that, in response to FCPS' 2021 release of records, the Office of Division Counsel (ODC) took the following action regarding FOIA:

"ODC hired staff attorneys and an additional paralegal to assist with reviewing documents for appropriate redactions before they are released in response to FOIA. Further, four new positions were included in the approved FY23 budget within the FOIA office to assist with document review and FOIA response. The FOIA Office and the FERPA Office under Department of Special Services have also merged into one office as of July 1. This office is housed in OCCR and supported by ODC and claims it failed to review prior to releasing them, FCPS' hired more lawyers to review records prior to release."

There's no indication that FCPS did an investigation or took any actions outside of hiring more people, spending more money, and committing to more reviews.

Superintendent Michelle Reid's Response

During our December 18th meeting, Michelle said the forensic investigation would not be released to the public because it is attorney-client privileged, but that a summary would be released.

She indicated the email we worked on together would include a link to the summary of the investigation and that the email and investigation would be posted to the home page of FCPS' site.

The email went out today, December 21, 2023, and was posted to the site with the summary of the investigation.

While I'll praise Michelle for commissioning an independent investigation that seems to have been done in record time, and sharing a summary of it with the public, I'm not thrilled with the summary.

Yes, it indicates FCPS is finally going to take steps to address systemic failures to secure students' records.

However, there's no explanation about how or why this occurred in the first place—nor does it say who was responsible.

In addition, while it addresses the importance of privacy and how to handle in-person inspections in the future, it lacks a focus on maintenance of student records, which is the thing that led to all of this in the first place.

FCPS adamantly claims it maintains records in a manner consistent with established guidelines, but the state of my kids' records proves otherwise. Had their records been maintained according to guidelines, they wouldn't have had information about other kids in them, the records included would have been labeled accurately and organized, and none of this would have happened.

Ending Note

I appreciate Michelle Reid breaking with FCPS tradition and am thankful that she took steps to help clarify what occurred, but there's still more work needed.

That her staff told VDOE that FCPS doesn't have systemic FERPA problems, within less than two hours of Michelle Reid emailing the FCPS community that systemic changes within FCPS are needed, is a problem.

It's also a reason why parents don't go to FCPS when problems arise. When FCPS staff provide false information, even though they and their leadership know otherwise, parents don't have a chance—or must go elsewhere if they're passionate enough about wanting to address the noncompliance.

As superintendent, she doesn't have time to address every problem every parent brings her way, but surrounding herself with individuals who can help accomplish this would go a long way toward making FCPS the leading division it has the potential to become.

I just hope she addresses the employees who knew about the FERPA noncompliance for years and repeatedly chose to deny it instead of permanently fixing it. They could have chosen to be part of the solution. Now, they're in the position of being identified as part of the problem.