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The peanut patrol and the school secretary who invades privacy

Submitted by on Monday, 18 May 2009 20 Comments

Here’s a concern that had never occurred to me as a parent of child with food allergies because I’ve been spoiled by our school’s concerned, considerate reaction in dealing with Big Guy’s peanut allergy this year.

A secretary at a Northern California middle school reads the medical file of a student with a peanut allergy and, if not takes notes on it, at least takes the time to digest it thoroughly.

And then she blogs about the information, detailing the student’s health history from the time he was a baby. She follows up by making medical judgments she’s not qualified to make unless the economy is so tough that doctors are working as school secretaries now.

“Do I think some people have deadly peanut allergies?” she wrote. “I think a very, very few do.

“Do I think this child does? Based on what I read, no. He has an allergy, not a deadly allergy.”

Oh, the many ways  this whole thing is problematic.

It’s ironic that as of this moment she admits in the blog post that she read the file, given a post she’d written just a few weeks earlier patting herself on the back for refusing to violate student privacy when a parent wanted her to release information about test scores.

At least she got it right in the case of the test scores. Not so much on the medical records.

First, the student has privacy rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. It appears that there might be some wiggle room under federal medical privacy laws, which have a specific exemption for school “officials” – if the middle school secretary is considered an official. School nurses, however, can be covered under federal medical privacy, and in Big Guy’s case, that’s the person I turned his medical information over to.

Some districts have opted to fall on the side of protecting privacy. Schools in Oshkosh, Wisc., for example, point blank declare all student health records confidential. The district requires that medical records be treated the same way as the rest of the school file:

“FERPA requires access records or logs be maintained, showing the name, title, date of access, and reason for access by individuals other than the maker of the record or those authorized to directly access the record. If information from the record is copied or released to third parties, the nature of the disclosure should be documented along with written parental/guardian consent for the disclosures.”

What do you want to bet blogging secretary didn’t get written permission from the parents to share their kid’s story with the world.

The federal government also makes it clear that, while federal medical privacy laws generally do not apply to schools, education privacy rights already cover students.

“These records may not be shared with third parties without written parental consent unless the disclosure meets one of the exceptions to FERPA’s general consent requirement.” according to a document on the Health and Human Services Web site.

Those exceptions include officials who have “legitimate educational interests” and parties involved in an emergency.

Did the secretary have a legitimate interest in knowing that the student has a life-threatening allergy – yes, though clearly she doesn’t believe the life-threatening part. Did she need to closely examine the student’s  medical history – hell no.

The secretary had one good point in her entire screed, which mostly falls along the lines of the same  “if you’re so scared you should home school” drivel that seems to be making the rounds of late. She objected to part of the allergic student’s health plan that bans any food kept in case of a lock down, pointing out that that could put diabetic students in peril.

I agree. It should be fairly easy to keep peanut-free foods  on hand. The secretary says the school uses granola bars, but among my six diabetic relatives, little restaurant-size containers of jelly or tubes of frosting are the foods of choice. They’re easier to get down if blood sugar crashes quickly.

Otherwise, she uses the argument that “compliance isn’t going to be perfect so why try” to  cloak her ignorance. Why can’t the student clean computer keyboards? Why can’t he clean his own cafeteria table before he eats? Why do we have to do it?

He can’t because if he’s contact allergic, touching even a trace of  remaining peanut oil can cause a reaction. Maybe the reaction would be merely the “deadly strain of hives and killer cough” the secretary scoffs at, but maybe it wouldn’t.

Her argument that a peanut-allergic vice principal survives every day at work so the student should be able to as well is bogus. There was a peanut-allergic teacher at Big Guy’s preschool, but she wasn’t contact allergic. He is.

I’m sure the secretary thinks she has legal cover for invading student privacy because she doesn’t use her name on the blog or identify her school.

But she does identify herself as being from Northern California, and as of tonight she includes a photo of herself on her blogger.com profile. She says there are 900 kids in the school and one entering next fall with a peanut allergy.

Given all of that, it’s not hard at all to figure out exactly whom she’s talking about.

If I were the parent of a peanut-allergic student about to enter middle school in Northern California, I’d take a good, close look at that picture – if it doesn’t disappear – to see if the secretary at my child’s soon-to-be school is invading student privacy.

And to know which secretary to not entrust with peanut allergy information, because how can you trust someone who doesn’t believe your child has a problem.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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  • Vanilla Cokehead said:

    what a clueless boob! that’s like me pulling up an electic company customer’s information at work and sharing it on my blog or Twittering the details. I’d get sh*t-canned in a heartbeat.

    This bozo should be at a minimum counseled on properly maintaining confidentiality of school records and should face suspension or termination.

  • Leslie K said:

    can you sue?

  • Leslie K said:

    In case you cannot sue, we can leave comments about her obvious lack of ethics.

    and I did….what a dumb bunny.

  • allergymoms.com : : Blog » Peanut Allergic Child’s Privacy Violated (author) said:

    [...] Legg wrote a terrific article in response to this. Well worth [...]

  • Eliz said:

    If you want to pursue action against this blogger, I’d suggest printing up any/all of her entries so to have permanent record. I would expect her blog will be taken down either by the site or by her when she begins to get worried. There are LOTS of helpful identifying blogs as to details of past school year. Of course, all of this assumes it really IS a middle school secretary in California. Who can ever really know (it’s the Internet).

    THANK YOU for blogging here about this. Excellent discovery and timely — ALL parents with children in schools need to be aware of their rights to privacy AND the many ways in which school personnel can and will divulge their personal information.

  • Gina Clowes said:

    Hi Debra,
    I believe I know who the blogger is and where she works. It was sent to me by a tech savvy (food allergic) adult.

    I am going to call the principal and superintendent as soon as they are open.

    I dont feel that I can post this information as it will only further identify the child.

  • Debra said:

    Thanks for all the comments, folks! I wasn’t even going to write about this one, because I’m just worn out from responding to all the silly, dangerous misinformation about food allergies – really, it could be a full-time job – but the privacy issues in this one were so egregious that I waded in anyway.

    Brian, I think the secretary definitely needs some counseling on privacy issues. Unless, of course, she’s a lawyer in addition to a doctor. I’d hate to see anyone canned in this economy, but it just breaks my heart to see this type of disregard for student privacy, even student well-being, in our school systems. Maybe an in-service session on privacy and food allergy issues would be in order.

    Leslie, I would argue that the parents of the child do have a possible action, if for no other reason than her careful reading of his medical file. But I’m not a lawyer and could be wrong. And, as someone who frequently deals with private records, thank you so much for your input.

    Eliz, I totally expect that blog post to be taken down as soon as she realizes the extent to which she’s stepped in it – I’ve saved screenshots just in case they’re needed for future reference.

    Gina, thank you so much for your efforts in contacting district authorities. I agree – those details about the school and district shouldn’t be posted because enough damage has been done already. Someone needs to be made aware, though, of the apparent breaches employees are making.

  • Bonnie said:

    I heard about this on Twitter! I have a son with PA in elementary school and am APALLED at this ladies blog post. This just feeds the fire of those that think this allergy isn’t potentially deadly and serious. She has no credentials to make these statements. Her blog and post and picture are still up.

    Gina-I hope and pray that you are able to get in touch with the proper authorities at the school district. She should not be around children with making these kind of judgements. I hope that you will post an update. We don’t need to know who she is or what district she works for but what the outcome was. Thank you!!

  • jh said:

    middleschoolsecretary.blogspot.com is now “open to invited readers only”

  • Bonnie said:

    I just went back and you cannot view this blog anymore…it says
    “This blog is open to invited readers only”. I did add the blog to my google reader and you can still read the posts there. Interesting!

  • Shenandoah said:

    I think that if she had just blogged it would have been bad enough, but adding her picture to the blog identifies the school and the students of the school.
    If there is only one allergic child or even a handful, she might as well put their name in the blog because they can be identified since she identified herself.

    Thank you for bringing it to our attention!!

  • Debra said:

    I agree, Bonnie. Like I said, she has a point that no school – or airline, or ballpark or even parent – can guarantee a 100 percent safe environment for a peanut-allergic child. But, to me at least, that doesn’t mean that we don’t try. Because it is real, and it is serious. Thank God my son’s teacher believes that, because she was the one who reacted quickly and got him to the school nurse this fall when he developed a “deadly strain of hives and killer cough” after eating a cereal bar that had no peanut warning whatsoever on it.

    People in the school system are our front-line defense if something awful happens when our children are in their care, whether it’s an allergy attack or an accident. After reading this woman’s post, I love my school district more than ever this morning because employees there are so conscious of their responsibility and of my son’s right to a public education.

  • Debra said:

    Yes, I noticed that just a few minutes ago, jh and Bonnie. That certainly raises a whole new level of complication as her district and school try to look into this. Do they have the right to access work created on an employee’s personal time? Interesting question that’s probably legally messy. Do those of us who have copies of the work have the right to redistribute it to them if asked? Probably not short of a court order – it is a copyrighted work, after all.

    I doubt the public at large will ever know the outcome of this unless the secretary chooses to go public, because as a public employee she has a right to privacy, the right for her work record to not be made public. A right I would defend, by the way.

    And I don’t think her head should be chopped off. It sounds like she has a lot of skills that are valuable. I do think she needs educated, though. Nothing like seeing a kid gasp for breath in the throes on anaphylaxis to create a true believer – I know that convinced a lot of my relatives who initially were skeptical that my son’s condition is serious.

  • Debra said:

    I just got an email back from the school principal. I am not identifying the principal’s name, the school or the district because, as Gina said earlier, that could serve to help identify the child.

    “Now that I have been made aware of the situation it has been taken care of. I am not a blogger myself and do not spend time on the computer outside of school, so all of this is new to me. Since many people have blogs these days it is situation that will be addressed in a staff meeting.”

  • Debra said:

    EXACTLY, Shenandoah. The fact that she didn’t use a name – hers, the kid’s, the school’s – does nothing to guarantee anonymity.

  • Bonnie said:

    Debra-Thanks for the update. I am glad to hear that it is being dealt with. It saddens me that this occurred and part of me was hoping it was a hoax and that someone didn’t really do this. I agree with you that she made some valid points but the overall message of the post was very malicious and judgemental and inaccurate. This school district certainly needs to educate their staff about more than what people write on their blogs outside of work. I think that this points to me that there is so much more education that needs to be done. I am pleased with my son’s school district so far as well. Although, issues do pop up along the way that have to be dealt with and staff have to be educated. I believe that school districts need to be ahead of the game and educate “before” something happens. There needs to be continued networking with school districts to educate staff and students.

    Thank you for addressing this!

  • Jennifer B said:

    So glad you were on top of it and Gina too! Amazing. I would love to know what happens to this secretary. Sad that this is what we are up against.

  • Ruth Smith said:

    Thanks Debra for this post. It just came to my attention. I’m glad you and Gina are so on top of it. I think it’s important that the appropriate people realize the harm in this.

    I think this really should give us pause about new media, the internet, and the world we live in.

    In my opinion when you accept a certain position you accept the responsibility that comes with that position. While we live in a country with free speech-there is a such thing as crossing the line.

    People get fired for posts on twitter, facebook, and myspace.

    Aside from the obvious-the bloggers negative attitude and disclosure of confidential information-regardless of whether one could identify the blogger, the child, or the school-she crossed the line in blogging period. It’s unprofessional and perhaps she should not be a school secretary.

    I for one would not want my food allergic child at that school.

    I hope some action is taken. Something tells me that won’t happen-or at least she won’t get more than a slap on the wrist. Then she’ll probably blog about the whole thing.

    I hope the food allergic family at that school is able to get past this. Middle school is hard enough without being the center of such an issue.

  • Leslie K said:


    Deb, as you know I have two blogs on the internet…my employer has full knowledge of and access to those blogs because I sometimes use their equipment (during lunch break, in the middle of the night) to post my writing. If she not only posted confidential information about a child’s medical condition on line as well as did so on school property during the time she is supposed to be working???? We are not only talking about a potential lawsuit by YOU but she is now in violation of school policy and in danger of losing her job.

    That always gives me pause…and then I think, “She is not smart enough to be allowed to vote or drive a car…why do I want her around Big Guy or Little Guy?”.

    aaaggghhhh…..ok, calm down….say a prayer…no, I promise not to pray that she walk in front of a moving school bus…honest.

  • Debra said:

    Excellent points, Leslie and Ruth. Yes, we have free speech, but with that freedom, as with any freedom, comes responsibility. At minimum, there are libel, slander and invasion of privacy laws – I’d guess I’m better acquainted with those than many bloggers because of my background in the news industry.

    But there also should be ethical constraints, not to mention the good old Golden Rule. I would argue that those are just as important as laws.

    I was actually thinking about this long before I saw blogging secretary’s post. The article I posted this morning I’d started on a week earlier, when I first saw the research, but put it aside because I wound up in a muddled internal struggle.

    It could have been a much more compelling post, much more convincing on the points that job evaluations are not a good starting point for merit pay because evaluations usually are flawed. I have a lot of experience in that area, both on the giving and receiving end.

    I could have written about my own evaluations and the confidential information would have been fair game because it was my information. Some years they were better than I thought they should have been, some years I was scratching my head, a very few years they were spot on. But that wouldn’t have been fair to the bosses who wrote the evaluations.

    I could have written about evaluations I’d given, but that definitely wouldn’t have been fair to the employee being evaluated, not to mention a violation of confidentiality. No matter how hard I’d tried to fudge details, someone would have figured out whom I was talking about among the dozens of employees I supervised over the years. Or, even worse, would have guessed and guessed wrong.

    So I held back. The result was a lukewarm post that’s probably still a bit muddled. But it’s one I can live with ethically.

    Bottom line: Even absent privacy and libel laws, there’s still an ethical responsibility to be fair. It’s entirely possible to do that and still back up your opinions. There is little that’s ethical or fair about an entire blog built around a mix of confidential information and taking pot shots at co-workers, which is largely the content I found on the secretary’s blog.