While you were busy trying to keep spam and viruses off your mail server, a bigger issue for your system may have arrived unnoticed in your inbox. Specifically, a December 2006 amendment to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that made it mandatory that all entities subject to a federal lawsuit (i.e., school districts) provide for a means to retain and retrieve electronic data including email correspondence if called into evidence. Many school systems already have in place storage and retention policies and systems for electronic documents such as word processing files and financial spreadsheets but the ruling's inclusion of electronic correspondence is a new facet and even includes text messages in its scope. Although the mandate does not delineate the timeline for document retention, it does make it clear that access to these documents will need to be quick in the event of a lawsuit.
With the growing number of email messages circulating through school system servers and the various sizes and types of attachments, the process for archiving and retrieving specific email and content is no simple task. A good start might be to review the following areas before evaluating or implementing a storage and retrieval solution:
- Consult with your board attorney in regards to local, state and federal guidelines regarding e-discovery and public records issues to facilitate compliance and preparation.
- Review your current policies for compliance with this change or seek strong models from other districts to help inform the development of new policies in your district. Among the primary considerations are specifying a reasonable retention period for documents.
- Communicate the need for compliance and commitment for the project to your superintendent and board of education. Support from these parties will help buffer the costs and media exposure this project will likely create.
- Evaluate your storage and archival needs from current email traffic and anticipated growth in traffic volume. Don't forget to include text messaging usage and needs in this process.
- Be sure you have a policy in place for monitoring spam, chainmail, profanity or other unacceptable messages. Archiving and indexing junk mail will be a waste of service and money.
- Review existing infrastructure and equipment to determine their ability to handle the demand of archiving and retrieval software processes. If a legal request was made for an email record now, what would you have to do to comply with it and how long would it take for you to respond?
- Know the current roles of technology staff and administration and what their access allows them to do with the records. This will help with rights management for new software and processes.
Choosing a solution
Finding the best solution to address your district's needs for archiving and storing email should include a discussion of the following topics:
Cost: Is the solution based on a per user basis or a tiered fee structure? Does the solution require additional hardware or software to integrate message stores? What are the ongoing support and maintenance fees? Does the solution allow for scaling up to meet increased demands and what costs are associated with this process?
Functionality: How is the software administered (e.g., Is management provided via a common web interface)? Are user rights easy to configure and maintain? Will the implementation and usage of the software require extensive training and support? Are reports and alerts available to help monitor the system status and holdings?
Retrieval: Are message stores indexed and searchable via a variety of fields (e.g., sender, subject, date, key words, etc.)? Are querying tools easy to use and customizable? Can queries be saved for future use? Can messages be exported to electronic media?
Security: Are records maintained of retrievals or queries by user? Is the storage tamper-resistant to prevent changes to the original message? Are user rights role-based so that levels of access can be easily stratified?
Email is a critical component of today's school environment and the ability to manage this information is now a legal requirement. Choosing the right solution for your system will be a good first step in minimizing the impact of e-discovery for your school system in the event of a lawsuit.
Lane B. Mills, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Educational Leadership program at East Carolina University. A former Assistant Superintendent for Accountability and Technology for a North Carolina school system, Dr. Mills was a 2004 Technology and Learning Ed Tech Leader of the Year finalist.