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Privacy Violations in Campaign?

Fairfax County Public Schools found non compliant in parent’s complaint.

The Virginia Department of Education found Fairfax County Public Schools to be in noncompliance in respect to an issue involving a Reston student’s record confidentiality. While the finding requires no corrective action on the school system’s part, the situation is made complex for political reasons and the uncertainty of what the future may hold for the parties involved.

In the 2007 School Board election, Christine Arakelian, the challenger for the Hunter Mill District seat on the county’s School Board, alleged that the school system violated her son’s, a third grader at Hunters Woods Elementary School, privacy. Arakelian alleged that Stu Gibson, the incumbent at the Hunter Mill position, discussed her son’s record in a letter to local Parent Teacher Associations and reports in the local media.

"It was an offense to me, to my son and every parent in Fairfax County Public Schools," said Arakelian about Gibson’s comments.

According to Gibson, Arakelian asked him to resign from his position as the School Board Member representing the Hunter Mill District. "I am not resigning," he said.

Arakelian said she first contacted the school system about the alleged violations, but when she received no response she filed complaints with the Virginia and United States Departments of Education.

In a July 1 letter to the local parent teacher organizations, Gibson explained how he came to know Arakelian. "In early May 2007 she contacted me to ask about what the school system was doing to address the needs of students like her son, so called ‘twice exceptional’ students who are at the same time gifted in some respects and learning disabled in others," reads the letter.

GIBSON SAID Arakelian provided her son’s record to him in that May meeting, which is the only time he has seen the student’s record. He has never requested the student’s record from the school system or Hunters Woods Elementary School. Gibson maintains that he never discussed the student’s record in public. "The law talks about educational records," said Gibson. "There is nothing I said in public that came from that piece of paper."

The state’s education department found that Gibson did not physically access the student’s records. However, the finding also states, "This is insufficient to support that Mr. Gibson did not disclose personally identifiable information about a student that is contained in those records," referring to the records Arakelian provided to Gibson in the May meeting. It further states, "Once in possession of that information he was obligated to ensure that it was kept confidential."

There are two ways of looking at the finding, according to Gibson. From a legal standpoint, he said, "What she accused me of, I didn’t do." From a practical standpoint, he said, Arakelian disclosed the information about her son herself, in multiple internet postings prior to his July 1 later. The letter, he said, "simply tells the story of how I first met her. And that becomes a federal case?"

THE VIRGINIA Department of Education finding — issued by the Division of Special Education and Student Services Office of Dispute Resolution and Administrative Services — states that it does not matter that Arakelian was the first one to disclose her son’s record. "There are no provisions in the regulations that allow information contained in a child’s educational record to be freely exchanged, without parental consent, based on the fact that the parent has made the information public," reads the finding.

"Am I surprised" that FCPS was found in noncompliance, "No," said Arakelian. She said Gibson’s actions, in terms of her son’s record disclosure, were meant to intimidate her in a political race. She said parents in FCPS should have a right to critique the school system without fearing their critique will be used as a sword against them. "[Gibson] broke the law. Is my son less subject to protection because they don’t like my politics?"

Arakelian said she hopes the School Board members would be held to the same expectations as teachers and other employees of the school system. If a teacher committed the same violations Gibson did, said Arakelian, that teacher would lose his or her job.

Arakelian added that she is receiving legal counsel for the next steps regarding this issue. Gibson said he did not know whether FCPS would choose to appeal the decision, but said there are no next steps as the finding required no corrective action. He said Arakelian’s complaint is not legitimate. "She put her son’s medical information on the internet," said Gibson. "I tried to run the campaign based on the issues. I did not make her son an issue, she did." Gibson added: "You have to wonder about somebody who puts that information on the internet for anyone to read, then accuses me of violating her son’s privacy."

Paul Regnier, FCPS Office of Community Relations coordinator, said the school system would not and could not comment as the issue is ongoing. Both parties, Arakelian and FCPS, have until Dec. 27 to file an appeal.