KU admits big mistake in distributing private e-mail

'We deeply regret it'

If you are a student, this isn’t the list that you want to be on.

But it definitely isn’t the list that you want Kansas University administrators inadvertently e-mailing to fellow students.

KU officials on Thursday admitted that earlier this week they improperly sent an e-mail identifying 119 students who failed all their classes during the last semester and were in jeopardy of having their financial aid revoked.

“It was a completely inadvertent, unintentional mistake,” said Todd Cohen, a spokesman with the university. “It was our error, our mistake and we deeply regret it.”

The mistake occurred when staff members at the university’s Office of Student Financial Aid sent an e-mail Monday to the 119 students who had failed all their classes in the last semester and who also had received financial aid. The letter requested additional information from the students to determine if they were still eligible for financial aid.

But the e-mail included the names of all the individuals as part of the e-mail address list. That meant each of the students who received the e-mail could see the names of everyone else who had failed classes.

Nancy George, a Gardner resident who was on the list, said she was livid Tuesday when she realized what had happened. She said the university’s mistake was tantamount to releasing the grades of students without their permission, which is prohibited under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

“I’m pretty ticked off,” George said. “When I saw everybody’s names listed on here, I thought this was totally asinine. I have everybody’s name and information, and they have my information. Nobody should have known that I failed a class or that I even had a student loan. It is really upsetting.”

Cohen said the university discovered the error Tuesday and immediately began contacting students individually to apologize and inform them of steps the university is taking to ensure the mix-up doesn’t happen again.

Cohen said the mistake should not have happened because it is the university’s policy to communicate financial aid information to students individually, not through a group e-mail. He said the department also was receiving training on privacy and security issues related to e-mails.

“This certainly will be a reminder to anybody who is ever pasting e-mail addresses into a message,” Cohen said.

Cohen said the university had reported the incident to the Department of Education’s compliance office so it could determine if there was a violation of the federal act regarding student privacy.

Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman with the Department of Education, said the department would investigate any complaints about the incident it received from students. Bradshaw said universities who violated the law could risk losing federal aid, but said the department almost always was able to work with universities to ensure mistakes weren’t made in the future.

George said she was considering filing a complaint. She said the mistake caused her embarrassment because it likely gave others an inaccurate picture of the type of student she was. She said she only took one class during the last semester and failed it because she was tending to her young daughter, who had developed pneumonia.

“The fact that I have a master’s degree and over 200 college credits and have never failed a course before, none of that is in the letter,” George said. “I just think this is absolutely inexcusable. Any professional should have known better than this.”