Electronic Document Retention

The infusion of technology into schooling presents an emerging issue for educational officials at all levels. Electronic documents, or e-documents, encompass the entire range of digitized or electronically generated information. In the absence of current federal litigation specifically related to e-documents in education, the proper protection and retention of e-documents is necessary should parties file suits against school boards and/or individual educators requiring evidence that may include e-documents. As the move toward a paperless society continues, educational officials must establish systematic policies and procedures to handle e-documents.

If school boards lack policies or procedures governing protection and retention of e-documents, then current or historical methods used for handling documents generally apply to e-documents. This standard applies in considering whether school officials are proceeding consistently regarding protection and retention of documents in general and e-documents specifically. A determination of reasonableness would be employed to identify whether boards or individual educators arbitrarily disposed of pertinent e-documents. Educators at all levels must be aware of the need to protect and retain e-documents, ranging from daily e-mails, electronic forms, annual budgets, and 5-year forecasts.

Properly designed policies should enable employees to manage e-documents and maintain critical information. Educators formulating e-document policies need to consider general handling of interoffice e-mails, external e-mails, original documents created electronically, and sensitive electronic information. They must also consider how to manage backup and storage of computer information, as well as timelines associated with archiving and destruction of e-documents. Sensible guidelines must be imposed in the absence of legal requirements.

Archiving large quantities of e-documents may prove to be too costly and a storage capability issue for school systems. A sound e-document policy will incorporate retention requirements for different types of information; destruction of archived documents in a timely manner; handling and disposition of sensitive information; periodic review of e-document timelines; and training of personnel in the use, storage, retention, and destruction of e-documents. Current federal legislation regarding electronic documents is contained in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act into law in 2002. The act directly affects public companies as well as their accounting and auditing with regard to financial records. Clearly, school boards utilize public funds to operate and provide educational opportunities to the surrounding communities. As such, the funding of public schools is often a political battle within communities as boards ask for increased amounts of funding while taxpayers demand accountability and proof of success for the money they provide. Although, as stated earlier, no current litigation is tied to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and education, it does not appear to be outside the realm of possibility, given the stipulations in the act. This emerging issue of e-documents and accountability along with the creation of federal crimes and penalties tied to e-documents may find its way into the education profession through legal action taken by concerned citizens.

Accountability and records are key requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. If litigation results from citizen complaints or suspicion of wrongdoing, e-documents may become legal evidence. Proper care of e-documents includes archiving, storage, and destruction. Although the costs associated with the maintenance and physical space of e-documents are relatively minimal, retention beyond reasonable time frames may prove to be ill-advised. Public access to records through freedom-of-information legislation requires timely response to legal requests. In addition, historical documents need to be purged; otherwise, providing requested documents may become unwieldy due to the vast number of e-documents archived. To this end, sound e-document disposition policies should provide schools and districts a legal recourse when litigation arises that requires furnishing e-documents.

Electronic document management is necessary in technology-driven education. Legal requirements may dictate e-document disposition. In the absence of legal requirements, school systems that are well prepared will establish sound policies addressing the handling of the multitude of e-documents that educators generate on a daily basis. Moreover, training school personnel; conducting internal audits; and implementing reasonable requirements for retention, destruction, and archiving will provide a basis for responding to requests for information through freedom-of-information acts or litigation.

Michael J. Jernigan

See also Electronic Communication; Open Records Laws; Personnel Records; School Board Policy

Further Readings

  • French, P. (2004). Electronic document retention policies. Law Practice Today. Available from http://archscan.com/documents/Creating%20%20Document%20Retention%20Policies.pdf 

Legal Citations

  • Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552. 
  • Sarbanes-Oxley Act, 15 U.S.C. § 7241, 18 U.S.C. §1350.