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School districts wrestling with ABCs of electronic discovery, compliance

School districts trying to meet compliance regulations are focusing on email archiving, but are hitting roadblocks related to electronic discovery and records retention laws.

School districts face a mandate to keep electronic information accessible for electronic discovery and public records searches. But for many public schools, confusion about the legal requirements and a lack of funding present roadblocks to data compliance.

As public institutions that face litigation, school districts are required by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) and state Sunshine Laws to keep relevant electronic information reasonably accessible. Like businesses in the private sector, the focus for school districts trying to meet compliance regulations has been on archiving email. However, school districts are finding compliance initiatives difficult to achieve because of insufficient resources, as well as a lack of direction from school leaders.

The main obstacle, according to educators and educational experts, is lack of awareness. "When I first brought [compliance] up at a meeting of a regional organization of school administrators I belong to, the reaction was, 'That doesn't apply to us,' " said Steve Dantinne, supervisor of technology for the Vineland Public Schools in Vineland, N.J.

While many enterprise IT administrators lack awareness of FRCP, Dantinne said it's probably worse among school district administrators. "Nobody wants to touch this issue [in schools] because it's going to cost money," he said. "Businesses understand that they need to spend money."

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This leads to the second problem school districts have with digital preservation: lack of resources. In Dantinne's case, the state of New Jersey has an Open Public Records Act dictating that school districts, counties and city governments have seven days to comply with a public information request. But that is an unfunded mandate.

"So far, the state has been really noncommittal," Dantinne said. "Nobody seems to want to give a guideline [to schools], because if they say definitively that you have to do it, you have to find some way to fund it. And if they say you don't have to do it, that's going against court rulings."

Dantinne said that 75% of his district's students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, which qualifies him for some IT aid through a federal program called e-Rate. This program uses funds collected by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company's (USAC) Schools and Libraries Program to provide low-income districts with networking and communications equipment.

But the federal program doesn't pay for the entire project. USAC's website specifies, "Applicants must provide additional resources, including end-user equipment (e.g., computers, telephones, etc.), software, professional development and the other elements that are necessary to utilize the connectivity funded by the Schools and Libraries Program."

Money may not be the only resource in short supply. According to a spokesperson for email archiving vendor Waterford Technologies, the company has sometimes been rebuffed in donating its products to schools because administrators don't have the man-hours to install or administer it.

A third problem for school administrators is that most digital archiving products are designed for corporate enterprises and are often too expensive and complex for schools. "Most of the products I've seen out there cost thousands just for the software that moves data from one place to another, and I'd still have to supply the hardware and storage," said Kevin Knuckles, IT director for the Aberdeen School District in Aberdeen, Miss.

With so many email archiving products out there, it's hard for school districts to find the right one. Knuckles said he's been bombarded by vendors and remains mired in policy discussions with local government.

Professional education associations, such as the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), offer advice to schools about the problem and other educational organizations try to raise awareness about regulations and technology.

CoSN's CEO Keith Krueger said the organization is preparing a campaign to raise awareness about records retention laws and offer simple guides to technology for educators. Beginning in the next few weeks, the group will distribute white papers, including case studies from schools that have already put an archiving program in place.

"The average school district isn't doing a lot yet because there's a lot of confusion in the marketplace," Krueger said. "But school districts have to sort through what's a legally defensible position, and doing nothing is not legally defensible."

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