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Formulating Retention Policies for Education

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Posted: 25 Sep 2007

Formulating Retention Policies for Education
by Greg Smith


Even though they don't belong to the group of regulated industries, such as finance and healthcare, schools, colleges and universities need to look at defining a formalized retention policy for electronic records and email documents, as email becomes the dominant form of communication. This policy should be based on the institution's retention needs from statutory and legal perspectives, as well as its own internal auditing requirements. In many cases, there may already be records retention policies in place, which should be modified to include electronic records.

Defining Policies for Electronic Records Retention

When defining their retention policy, academic organizations should be aware of various driving factors:

Access to Information

As publicly funded organizations, most educational institutions are governed by the respective state's Access to Information legislation. Thus, in defining their electronic records policies, academic entities should check the retention time frames and the nature of the information that individual states mandate must be retained to meet open records request directives.

While schools may be subject to the state's access to information policy, it is critical that they develop their own policies for handling open records requests. They can use the state's policy as a guideline and elaborate on it, so that when they are faced with a records request, there is a clear procedure and policy for fulfilling it.

An academic organization's policy regarding open records requests should state the procedure for requesting this information, as well as specify the type of information the school will provide. Most Access to Information legislation makes the provision that not all information is accessible. The school should clarify those cases when information will not be released, for instance, if it is felt that by doing so would not be in the best interest of the school. There are also provisions in the legislation for an information access service fee for gathering and providing the information to the requestor. It is important that schools understand these legislative requirements and provisions when they create their policies to deal with all requests for electronic discovery.

Legal Discovery

Electronic data is becoming the most prevalent source of evidence in most civil trials and organizations are finding themselves under great pressure and financial burden to produce electronic records in the course of litigation procedures. There are many legal opinions on which information or how much information to keep, but the consensus among legal experts dealing with electronic records is to save more information rather than less. This view is primarily based on the fact that email records by their very nature are difficult to destroy completely and so having more evidence in court is more beneficial than the other way around.

Internal Auditing

As with most educational institutions and especially K-12 organizations, email correspondence between teachers and students, as well as teachers and parents, needs to be audited to ensure appropriate conduct and proper use of system resources. Most school email policies state that all email is subject to review, but few schools actually conduct regular reviews due to lack of the appropriate technology that would allow email audits and shortage of human resources to implement such controls. It should be noted that while legal discovery and access to information requests could go back years, auditing of day-to-day communications typically comprises short-term monitoring.

Save Everything or Save Some Things?

The majority of current legislation postulates, and legal advisors confirm it, that there is no reason to save all email messages and that transitory information and "junk" can and should be deleted from the system. The main problem arises in determining what should be kept and what constitutes transitory information that should be deleted. The second issue has to do with the risks of empowering users to make those decisions.

Option 1: Save Everything

This is the default policy when organizations are unable to define or enforce formal retention policies. In this scenario, the retention requirements are simply passed down to IT as a technical issue. The underlying premise to this approach is that adding storage is cheaper and faster than allocating resources for designing, implementing, enforcing, and monitoring a retention policy.

Option 2: Save Some Things

This is the desired policy, but it has a catch. In order to implement it, the organization must develop a highly formalized data retention policy which outlines the individuals' responsibility to retain information on behalf of the organization and also provides clear guidelines as to what information is acceptable to be destroyed and what information must be kept.

In addition, the policy needs to state how the information must be kept. This policy has to be communicated to staff as part of an internal policy enforcement program. It also needs to be audited in order to ensure that it is being conformed to.

Unfortunately, practice shows that policy creation, education, and enforcement as the three aspects of data retention prove to be too much overhead for most organizations in terms of effort and resource allocation. Instead, most organizations opt for the "Save everything" approach as a preferred route.

Destruction Policies

With any retention policy there is an associated destruction policy. This policy should not only apply to email in the live system and in the email archives, but must also extend to all forms of electronic data, including backup tapes, personal archives, and even IMAP/POP clients which may have copies of email on the local workstations.


Implementing formal archiving policies for email will simplify the process of records retention and provide academic institutions with a single point of access and knowledge. If there are legal discovery or public access requests, schools can be certain as to what information is available to them and where that information exists, thus reducing costs and providing quicker discovery turn-around.

What to keep and for how long to keep it are typically standard from school to school and state to state, but the methods of how that information is captured and retained is largely left to the organization. Important considerations in this context are the level of automation that the retention solution provides, as well as to what degree it ought to be managed by the respective school's faculty and administrative staff.

If you have specific questions or need help in formulating your email retention policy, you may contact Greg Smith at

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