The peanut patrol and the school secretary who invades privacy
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.