Seattle schools waited days to tell parents of huge student info leak

SEATTLE - Seattle Public Schools' admission that it disclosed thousands of student special education records came only after the man who received them refused to return them, according to a lawsuit filed by the district.

The school district is now suing Samuel Morley, hoping to force him to destroy documents given to him by an attorney for the district that contain sensitive information about more than 7,400 students.

Morley, who is pursuing an administrative claim against the district, received two large releases of school district email earlier in November. Attached to the messages were datasheets including personal details on nearly all of Seattle Public Schools' special education students.

Statements filed as to support the district's lawsuit make clear district officials hoped Morley would destroy the accidentally disclosed documents without legal pressure. Though it first learned of the disclosure on Nov. 11, district staff waited until late on Nov. 13 to inform parents their children's information had been released in apparent violation of federal law.

The disclosure stemmed from an administrative claim against the district brought in August by Morley through the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Morley brought the action on behalf of a student. The district hired an outside law firm - Preg, O'Donnell and Gillete - to represent it in responding to Morley's claims.

The confidential records were appended to two large PDF files sent to Morley. The first, totaling 271 pages, was sent to Morley on Nov. 7, followed by a second 457-page batch on Nov. 11.

Morley immediately informed the district he'd received confidential information about students by way of a lengthy letter to school board members and others. In his letter, Morley faulted the school district legal office for providing the records to an outside law firm in the first place.

"This type of information should never have been transmitted as email attachments either internally or externally by the SPS legal department," Morley said in his letter to the school board.

Lara Hruska, the Preg, O'Donnell and Gillette attorney who sent Morley the documents, contacted Morley the next day and asked that he destroy the records.

In a sworn declaration, Hruska said Morley previously requested email and educational records related to one child. Hruska said she thought she was sending Morley only those records when she disclosed thousands of students' personal information.

As it turned out, the email messages passed along to Morley included attachments that contained confidential student records.

"Unbeknownst to me at the time I sent them to Mr. Morley, the attachments to the emails could be viewed by him upon receipt," Hruska said in the declaration. "Some of these attachments inadvertently contained confidential, personally identifiable information on other students."

Hruska said she only realized the error after Morley emailed each school board member, Seattle Public Schools Interim Superintendent Larry Nyland and several other district leaders with his concerns. The attorney called Morley and then emailed him apologizing for the error; she said she didn't realize that the PDFs included working links.

"I would sincerely appreciate it if you would please let the numerous stakeholders you emailed regarding my mistake know that the disclosure was due to a technological error and that you have spoken to the attorney at fault and she is remedying the situation," Hruska said in her Nov. 12 email to Morley.

For his part, Morley told the school board somewhat different story. By his account, he warned an attorney for the district that he was receiving confidential information days or weeks before the Nov. 11 release.

Seattle Public Schools sent a notice to parents announcing the mistaken leak on Nov. 13, after Morley refused to return the emailed records. Nyland followed that up with a message to parents on Nov. 15.
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