State agency believes prisoners had access to students’ information; took more than two years to make change

Published: Feb. 16, 2022 at 5:41 AM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - The Iowa Department for the Blind said prisoners within the Iowa Department of Corrections had access to students’ partial names, birthdays and mailing addresses, according to emails our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team received through a public records request.

Emily Wharton, who is the director for the Iowa Department for the Blind, wrote in a memo that her concerns regarding student information being accessible to prisoners were ignored. She said she brought the issue to the Department of Education in February 2019. Documents show changes, like removing a student’s date of birth and assigning a code number instead of using a student’s first name and last initial, were implemented more than two years later in November 2021.

Director Wharton said the Iowa Department for the Blind still has concerns about prisoners released with the information and possible FERPA violations after changes were made by the Department of Education. She also wrote that she was disappointed with the length of time it took the department to fix the data issues.

“I am writing this memo to you as a human being who considers it her duty to not stand idly by as the personal information of children is needlessly being placed into the possession and allowed to continue in the possession of inmates and ex-offenders,” Wharton wrote. “I cannot understand why it has taken so long for these issues to be addressed at all and the actions taken so far below the bare minimum of what anyone remotely familiar with data security would expect.”

Wharton, who was frustrated with the lack of action from the Department of Education, decided to bring the dispute to the Governor’s Office. She said she was trying to protect children.

“I am trying to protect kids and the state by pushing to get it solved before something bad happens,” she wrote. “They never needed to give the names, ages and locations of the students to the prisoners. This never needed to happen and should have been fixed three years ago.”

Director Wharton said she was assured the changes would solve her concerns in a meeting with the Governor’s Office, Iowa Prison Industries, and the Department of Education on January 28, 2022.

State agency claims quality Issues with Braille on Demand

The Iowa Department of the Blind said it used the Iowa Prison Industries (IPI), as one of 11 different prison braille programs across the country, to produce material for students. The program through IPI is called IPI Braille on Demand and allows teachers to order braille materials in about one day.

Wharton said the Iowa Department for the Blind stopped using IPI in March 2021 to produce braille materials because of quality concerns over unreadable tactiles, which are raised line graphs, drawings or maps conveying visual information.

In an email to TV9, Wharton said the last straw was a fifth-grade geography book, which had multiple errors and was returned to IPI for corrections. She said the second version was less readable and the incident cost taxpayers more than four times the book’s original cost.

“In the end the materials were unusable and we needed to send the project to another vendor,” she wrote. “This textbook was $707 and the total cost of the project was $3,231.50.”

Barbara Guy, who is the director of special education at the Iowa Department of Education, said in a memo to Director Wharton that IPI’s Braille on Demand is “of sufficient quality”. She also said she is confident the additional efforts to hide students’ information would address Wharton’s concerns.

“In addition, they provide materials using the same security processes to numerous other states without complaint,” she wrote. “I am confident these additional measures of security should ensure the continuation of that success rate.”

One State Agency’s Concerns over Data Security

Director Wharton said prisoners released from prison were able to buy these databases from IPI. She said this was concerning since her department doesn’t share students’ information with volunteers or contractors since it isn’t necessary for them to do their work.

“It is a basic principle of data security to limit access to information that may be considered sensitive to only those who need access to it,” she wrote to TV9. “I have no information that any student information was used inappropriately and believe returning citizens deserve a fresh start, but giving prisoners this data and allowing them to leave prison with the data is an unnecessary risk with no practical benefit to the student.”

Heather Doe, who is a spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Education, said the procedures followed FERPA requirements. She said the department made changes to address concerns from the Iowa Department for the Blind.

“Prisoners have never had access to an individual’s full name and address,” she wrote. “Early on, tracking forms included a first name and last initial.”

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