D.C. Agency Accidentally E-Mails Personal Data About College Financial Aid Applicants

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The D.C. agency that handles college financial aid requests said yesterday that it had accidentally e-mailed personal information from 2,400 student applicants to more than 1,000 of those applicants.

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) said it has notified all students of the breach, which occurred when an employee of the agency's Higher Education Financial Services Program inadvertently attached an Excel spreadsheet to an e-mail. The information included student names, e-mail and home addresses, phone and Social Security numbers and dates of birth.

The disclosure involved the "DC OneApp," an online application that allows D.C. students to apply for a series of grant programs. They include DCTAG, which provides awards of up to $10,000 toward the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition at public four-year-colleges in the 50 states.

The accidental disclosure went to about 1,250 DCTAG applicants, officials said.

OSSE never publicly announced the breach, which occurred Wednesday. It did express regret for the incident in an e-mail sent to students and parents the next day. A parent made the e-mail available to The Washington Post over the weekend.

The agency urged all recipients to immediately destroy the spreadsheet attachment. It also offered one-year subscriptions to a credit-monitoring service to help students guard against identity theft or other fraud.

"The OSSE takes very seriously our responsibility to keep personal information private and sincerely apologizes to everyone for any inconveniences," the e-mail said. The agency said it was taking steps to shorten Social Security numbers on any reports or spreadsheets and was reviewing policies and security measures for handling confidential student information.

Parents reacted angrily to word of the breach. Brenda Thomas, whose daughter Leah is a senior at Maret, a private school in Northwest Washington, said she was "livid."

"We tell her how important it is not to give her Social Security number out, not even to join Facebook, for goodness' sakes," said Thomas, who described her daughter as "in tears."

Even more irritating, she said, was that she was recently informed by OSSE that Leah, who will attend Stanford University this fall, was ineligible for assistance because the family exceeded income guidelines.

"And now this," Thomas said.

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