PITTSBURGH (AP) - When Jim Phillips attended Catholic school decades ago, his teachers were no-nonsense, tough-as-nails disciplinarians who didn’t think twice about sending misbehaving students to detention.
En route to their punishment, students often received a cryptic threat about the penalty for repeatedly misbehaving:
“Do it again, and it will end up on your permanent record.”
Generations of educators uttered the words to legions of students, most of whom never knew for sure whether a lasting record of their transgressions existed.
In Pennsylvania, the “permanent record” is fairly permanent.
Details of every scrape with authority don’t remain documented forever, but a basic record exists for every student who attended a Pennsylvania school.
State law requires that school districts keep students’ names, addresses, birth dates, grades, attendance and tardiness records for at least 100 years. Only students or their parents can see the records. Others - including college admissions officers, military recruiters and potential employers - need signed releases to obtain the records.
How much information the records contain varies by district.
Phillips, 83, a retired steamfitter from Allison Park who was a member of Central Catholic High School’s Class of 1950, remembers “walking in (to detention) and thinking we had committed a mortal sin or something. We had a lot of ‘characters’ at Central.”
After all these years, Phillips didn’t know whether there was a record of his detentions.
The answer is no, according to Jeff Folino, director of alumni and constituent relations at Central Catholic.
Phillips’ basic academic information remains in the school’s records, but not much beyond that. His record is among the paper files kept for students who attended the Oakland school from 1928 to 1962.
It’s not uncommon for former Central Catholic students to inquire about their permanent records, Folino said.
“They want to know how many hours they spent in detention,” he said, noting that information about disciplinary actions was deleted from old files when they were put on microfiche years ago.
That’s not necessarily the case in all school districts, where some records contain various details of students’ lives - from standardized test scores and class photos to information about their parents’ income.
The amount and depth of information can vary greatly.
Two Tribune-Review reporters requested copies of their permanent records and received dramatically different results.
One, a 1971 graduate of Norwin High School, received a one-page report showing grades, attendance, SAT scores and other basic information. The second, a 2004 graduate of Central Dauphin High School near Harrisburg, received a 20-page report with grades, standardized test results from grade school through high school, class photos, information about her parents and other personal data.
Although many people give no thought to the contents of permanent records on graduating from high school, the documents can come into play later in life.
“We get a lot of requests,” said Michael D. Choby, principal at Norwin Senior High School. “Twentysomethings work for a couple of years, then transition back to school. … There are background checks, FBI, military.”
At Norwin, permanent records are kept on computers, but the paper copies of records dating to the 1930s are stored in a room full of file cabinets in the high school’s guidance department.
The existence of records that contain so much personal information has raised privacy and security concerns.
Five federal bills regarding the issue were introduced this year, said Elana Zeide, an expert on student privacy at the Information Law Institute of New York University.
Parents are concerned about how the information is stored, where it’s stored, who can access it and how vulnerable it is to cyber attacks, she said.
“There is a lot of pressure. Parents want to be reassured,” said Zeide, author of “The Proverbial Permanent Record.”
Much of “the tremendous amount of information” collected on students is stored in databases. Protocol for handling cyber records differs from state to state, she said.
Parents worry that information stored for a long time could be used to deny their children opportunities, Zeide said.
“Those fears are valid, and not just for education,” she said.
Nearly 75 percent of colleges and universities collect high school disciplinary information and 89 percent use it in admission decisions, the N.Y.-based Center for Community Alternatives wrote in a June report, “Education Suspended.”
In some districts, student data are reviewed periodically and destroyed once the student leaves school. But even if a student is deleted from the system, he or she could show up in data compiled by the Pennsylvania Department of Education for use by researchers and statisticians tracking trends in the state’s schools.
Although students’ names and other identifying information are stripped from the records before they are placed in the state databases, some people have expressed concerns about security before that information is removed.
Then there are those who, years after graduating, are more amused that worried by the existence of a permanent record.
Phillips has not asked to see his record. He’s not sure he wants to.
“What you don’t know won’t hurt you,” he quipped.
Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, https://pghtrib.com
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