The deletion of a video depicting an alleged scuffle between a teacher and student at a Newark middle school has highlighted an apparent vulnerability for data held within Delaware schools, which operate outside technology rules that govern state agencies.
Jennifer Rife, a Newark mother, said a teacher at Gauger-Cobbs Middle School on Oct. 24 grabbed the arm of her 12-year-old daughter Rebecca, spun her around and dragged her a few feet along a school hallway. Rife called the school after she learned about the incident and was told a video existed showing no evidence of a teacher touching her daughter, she said.
Days later, Rife said, she arrived at the middle school to watch the video and determine which version of events the footage supported. But she was told the video was gone – possibly forever.
School officials said the deletion was a freak accident. A power surge on Oct. 28 wiped data from the hard drive of the school’s surveillance system. The computers were not protected by standard battery backup or electrical surge protection devices.
“They said the good news is the video is not lost, but right now we’re having trouble bringing it up due to the power outage, so I can’t show you right now,” Rife said. “It really pissed me off.”
To date, the video has not been recovered, and school officials now say they do not know if it will be possible to do so.
Wendy Lapham, spokeswoman for Christina School District, will not comment on the alleged incident involving Rife’s daughter as it is being investigated by a school resource officer with Delaware State Police.
She did not know why the school’s surveillance system was not protected against power surges but said, ”Because of the severity of this power surge/outage, a standard surge protector could not have prevented the outcome in this situation.”
“It was a pretty major event,” Lapham said.
School officials contacted Tyco International – the company that sold the surveillance system to the school – and requested their engineers try to retrieve the lost video, Lapham said.
“Tyco communicated to our technology staff that they had determined the power outage knocked out or erased via electric surge partial or full data prior to Oct. 26,” she said.
School technology officials were not available to speak on the record, Lapham said. She also declined to describe school district cybersecurity policies.
“We do not release our computer security policies and practices to outside sources, but I can tell you that we protect information and systems from malicious behavior,” she said.
Nicholas Morici, a spokesman for Delmarva Power, confirmed a power outage did occur Oct. 28 in the area around Gauger-Cobbs after tree branches cut by an arborist fell onto nearby power lines.
In the weeks since the surge, Gauger-Cobbs officials purchased for the surveillance system a surge protector and battery backup system from security company, APC, Lapham said.
“The unit that was affected and serviced has been equipped with a power surge device,” she said.
APC’s backup system is one of several industry-standard surge protection devices, said Dr. Starnes Walker, founding director of the Cybersecurity Initiative at the University of Delaware. The school should have had such a device installed between their surveillance system and its electricity source prior to the power surge, he said.
This case is suspicious, Walker said, because best practices for data protection is common knowledge among technology professionals.
“It’s strange that they had a power surge (days) later,” he said.
The Delaware Department of Technology and Information sets cybersecurity rules for all state agencies, including ways to protect equipment against power surges. But those rules do not extend to computers and equipment inside of Delaware schools, as they are largely autonomous public institutions.
“People are often confused in that they think the state is over school districts, but they’re separate government entities,” said Allison May, spokeswoman for the Delaware Department of Education.
But individual student records gathered by schools are protected by state standards because they are stored on the DOE’s eSchoolPlus database, May said. The data includes student attendance, grades and disciplinary actions.
In the weeks since the alleged incident at Gauger-Cobbs, Rife has hired an attorney. She wants the teacher involved to be fired and is “trying to get compensation for (her) daughter.”
Additionally, school officials’ explanation that the video disappeared because of a power surge is questionable, she insisted. Someone probably deleted it, she said.
Lapham reiterated that the deletion was an unfortunate accident and certainly not malicious.
“We are trying to restore that data,” she said. “We will certainly share it with the parent. We are not trying to keep her from accessing that.”
Contact Karl Baker at [email protected], (302) 324-2329, or on Twitter @kbaker6.
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