Visiting schools in Prince William? Read this first.


Today at the FOI Advisory Council's meeting, a representative from the Prince William County Schools, and the county's outside attorney, announced their desire to ask for an exemption to FOIA in the upcoming session. (Actually, they asked for two, but only one is relevant here.)

PWCS uses a system called the Electronic Visitor Identification System (VIS). A visitor to any the PWCS' 88 schools must present one of several designated photo identifications. The ID is scanned into VIS, which links the information on the ID with various law enforcement and court databases to check for sex offenders, felony convictions, restraining orders, etc. The results of this "instant background check" will determine what level of access to the school the visitor will have (for instance, some can go on their way with a badge that monitors their whereabouts in the building, while others will be assigned an escort).

VIS collects and retains all of this information, along with the names, addresses, photos and "notes" about the individual, and PWCS said it wanted a FOIA exemption allowing them to withhold the data from public disclosure.

The council gave PWCS a pretty chilly reception.

The council pointed out that student records would be exempt by FERPA so PWCS couldn't cite student-privacy as a justification.

PWCS said there were too many records to go through to redact student information, prompting council member Courtney Malveaux, the Attorney General's representative, to remind PWCS that the county can charge for the cost of providing the records, or also ask a court for more time to fill the request.

Going beyond the scope of the FOIA Council's mission, several members questioned the wisdom of such a system in the first place, noting a whole examples of how a parent's right to participate in their child's education could be chilled. Others noted that parents would lose a way to monitor what types of vendors, professionals or other individuals had access to their children.

But the harshest criticism was from council member George Whitehurst of the Fredericksburg Chamber of Commerce, who felt that the FOIA Council was basically being asked to clean up a mess made by the school district when it adopted the use of a software system without thinking through the consequences of accessing and collecting this much data.

PWCS came to the council last year saying it wanted a similar exemption, but legislation was never submitted.

The Public Records Subcommittee of the council, chaired by council member Craig Fifer of Alexandria city government, will add the PWCS proposal to its agenda.


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