The Importance of Records Retention Policies for Schools

August 14, 2020

Data and records management can often be a complicated issue for just about any business or industry, particularly those that deal with large amounts of data as part of their daily operations. However, if you are looking for the perfect example of an organization that deals with almost every type of record possible, then look no further than a school.

While you might expect large corporations to have the most complex records retention issues, they tend to only have to deal with their industry-specific regulations. Law firms, banks, and pharmaceutical companies certainly deal with vast amounts of data. However, schools must contend with managing the sensitive personal data of their students, their academic records, medical records collected by a school nurse, and the financial, organizational, and employment records of the school itself.

Naturally, this makes for a particularly complex challenge, with a number of different regulations governing schools and students, including the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIIPA), among others. Given the unique role that data retention plays in the administration of a school, we felt that it was worth exploring what records are, exactly, in the context of schools and how proper records management can ease the burden of school administrators and teachers.

What are School Records?

As the adage goes, it may be easier to define what aren’t school records. School administrators occupy a unique combination of roles as guardians, managers, and employers. This means that the breadth of record types that must be dealt with on a daily basis in a school is truly vast. Broadly, however, the most common records that schools must manage can be divided into the following categories:

Academic Records

Naturally, one of the main record types that schools must store and manage are academic records. These may include student academic transcripts, standardized testing scores, academic achievements, or any other data pertaining to the academic performance of a student during their time at the school.

Private Student Records

When each new student enrolls, the school creates a record card and file for them. This will contain any and all personal data that the school collects on the student, including the contact information of their guardians, their address, any pertinent medical records, and any records of disciplinary action. This file will also include any Individualized Education Programs (IEP) if the student requires any special educational provisions.

Employment Records

Because we often think of schools as simply being places of learning, it is easy to forget that they are also employers. In fact, as of 2018, elementary and secondary schools in America employed over 5.5 million people. Because of this, schools must manage a host of employee records including personnel files, payroll, employee medical records, training and development records, and teacher evaluations.

Operational Records

As complex organizations with the weighty responsibility of keeping several hundred or more children safe and accounted for, schools have a wide range of records that fall under the ‘operational records’ category. These include attendance records, records of safety checks and drills, records of visitors, and many more.

Financial Records

Just as we forget that schools are employers, it is also easy to overlook the business aspect of school administration. Even public schools have a budget that must be properly accounted for. On top of that, many independent schools literally operate for profit like any other business. Of course, this means keeping clear and accurate financial records of expenses, income, inventory, and any of the other records associated with proving your financial fidelity come tax or budget review season.

How Long Are Schools Required to Keep Records?

Record types remain fairly consistent across every type of school. However, when you begin to look at how long records need to be retained, things become a bit more complicated. The record retention policy for any school will be shaped by several factors, including:

  • Where its funding comes from
  • Which location that the school is in
  • What your administration deems necessary

The key determinant of a school’s record retention policy will be the legislation that governs its activity. This is where the funding and location of the school come in. If the school is not funded in any way by the federal government, then they will only be subject to state and local legislation regarding record retention, which varies greatly across the country.

If, however, the school is public or receives some form of federal funding, then they will be expected to meet the requirements of the Federal Education Privacy and Rights Act (FERPA). Unless their state’s legislation has stricter rules regarding record retention, FERPA will be the primary force behind their data retention schedule template. This means that, in most cases, private school records retention policies vary greatly from those of public schools, although many use public school records retention policies as a guideline from which to shape their own.

What is FERPA?

FERPA is a set of federal legislation that was made into law in 1974. The purpose of the law is to ensure that parents or guardians have legal access to their child’s educational records, that students have access to their own educational records after they turn 18. It also defines the rules governing which persons and bodies educational records can be disclosed to, and under what circumstances.

It is important to note that FERPA only governs schools that receive funding from the federal government via an eligible program. Therefore, the majority of independent, private, or religious schools do not fall under the regulation. However, they may still be governed by state-level legislation regarding student information. Either way, private and independent schools should still take records management seriously and implement, at minimum, a sound data retention policy to protect against litigation.

Who can Schools Disclose Student Information To?

Aside from parents, legal guardians, or eligible students, schools governed by FERPA are allowed to share student records with certain entities under specific circumstances. Here is a list of to whom, and when, student information can be disclosed without the consent of the student or their guardians:

  • School officials with legitimate educational interest

  • Other schools to which a student is transferring

  • Specified officials for audit or evaluation purposes

  • Appropriate parties in connection with financial aid to a student

  • Organizations conducting certain studies for or on behalf of the school

  • Accrediting organizations

  • To comply with a judicial order or lawfully issued subpoena

  • Appropriate officials in cases of health and safety emergencies

  • State and local authorities, pursuant to specific State law

How Long Must Educational Records Be Retained Under FERPA?

As we have discussed above, the complexity of overlapping state legislation means that many schools who are subject to FERPA regulation may still have very different records retention policies to other federally-funded schools. However, for any school that must meet FERPA compliance requirements, there is a baseline for record retention minimums that should be adhered to:

  • All temporary records such as class attendance, family background information, or aptitude test scores, must be retained for a minimum period of 5 years after the student graduates or leaves the school.

  • All permanent records such as test scores, other academic records, disciplinary records, or medical histories should be retained for 60 years after the student graduates or leaves the school.

Is Preschool Record Retention Governed by FERPA?

While many preschools are privately owned or funded, there are still many state-run preschool programs that receive both state and federal money. As with elementary, middle, or highschools that are funded federally, these early-childhood programs must also adhere to FERPA regulation and implement retention schedules according to its guidelines.

What is a Data Retention Schedule and Why Do Schools Need One?

Data retention schedules (sometimes referred to as “records retention schedules” or simply “retention schedules”) are, at their most basic level, a document that lists all the types or “series” of records received by an organization. The schedule assigns each record type a duration for which it must be kept and a set of guidelines for how they should be properly destroyed.

 The goal of a data retention schedule is threefold. Most importantly, it ensures that no records are destroyed before their legally-defined disposition date. Secondly, proper retention schedules ensure that both physical and digital storage space is not wasted on unnecessary records. Finally, a retention schedule ensures that disposition of records and data that are still in active use does not interfere with the operations of the organization.

Thankfully, data retention schedules have largely moved beyond simple documents and are now integrated into more comprehensive records management systems. Modern digital records management solutions for schools will provide secure digital storage, electronic physical records management, and built-in retention schedules for regulations that govern education. Implementing a solution like this can have a number of benefits across a school or college.

Improved Operational Efficiency

The operational efficiency of schools can benefit hugely from a proper data retention schedule and management system. With so many record types to manage, streamlining the search process and ensuring that only necessary records are kept will greatly lower the time spent dealing with records.

Legal Discovery

As employers, schools are governed by all the same federal regulations and retention requirements as any other business. On top of that, they must adhere to state regulations on student records retention requirements. In the event of a legal challenge to either of these, having a proper retention policy in place will ensure they have all the necessary records and will protect them in the case that a record was accidentally destroyed or lost.

Optimizing Storage Space

Despite the ongoing trend of transitioning to digital storage across industries, physical records persist. Due to certain regulations requiring physical records, or just outdated systems and a lack of funding, many schools have significant numbers of physical records to deal with. Proper records retention schedules can free up huge amounts of storage space, something that is always at a premium in schools.

Capturing Intellectual Property

While intellectual property may not be something that comes to mind when thinking about schools, it can be an important source of income for private and independent schools, as well as universities. Properly managed records are essential if a school attempts to lay claim to a specific piece of curriculum or syllabus that was created by members of their organization.

Summary

Schools represent a relatively unique overlap of record types and regulations governing records retention. School administrators must act as a combination of custodians of large numbers of children, managers of a business, and employers of a large number of workers. This means managing records pertaining to students, employees, and the financial and operational workings of the school. For public schools in particular, as recipients of both state and federal funding, the weight of regulatory compliance that must be met is significant.

With such a wide range of record types across both physical and digital storage, meeting compliance and ensuring that the private information of students is secure, while also streamlining operations and reducing costs, is an understandably complex challenge. Far too complex, in fact, to cover fully in an article of this length. However, as we have outlined above, the first step for any school, whether private or public, is to implement a proper records and data retention schedule. Ideally, this would be contained within a comprehensive records management system that is designed with their use case in mind.

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