School records found in a dumpster on the Le Conte playground on Saturday. Photos: Alicia Abramson

When Alicia Abramson took her kids to play on the Le Conte playground on Saturday morning, she discovered something unusual. “I came across a few boxes of school records that the school appears to be dumping.  In addition to being a strange place to dispose of the records, these records are quite old … some of them go back to the 1920s through the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s,” she writes.

According to Abramson, the records consist primarily of “student cards” with the students’ names, birth dates, grades, parents’ names, occupations, birth place, and whether they are naturalized citizens.

“The records are quite interesting from a historical point of view — I bet more than a few living Berkeleyans are represented among them,” says Abramson.

Abramson wonders why the school is discarding the documents this way, whether there may be privacy issues, and asks whether a local historian might be interested in having a look at them.

Abramson took some of the discarded documents home in a bid to save at least some of them and is willing to give them to somebody who might want to add them to an archive or study them from a historical perspective. She can be reached via Berkeleyside at tips@berkeleyside.com.

Meanwhile, if anyone has thoughts or can share any insights, the Comments section is, as always, an open forum.

Some of the discarded school records date as far back as the 1920s

Tracey Taylor

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...

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25 Comments

  1. I love myself I got all my childhood student school records with my name on it my teachers name on it my subjects my report card grades my birth date all the schools went to its my life I love it forever I love my name love what I do with myself being school get honor roll to a diploma hard work success more positive with my life even my birth certificate written on it there and old address residence where I use to live also my Junior High Middle school photo of myself when I teenager paperclip to my school record

  2. I got my School Records too with all my private information when I was in school during those years and I love it so proud of my success since I have been in school since late 90s in 1996 that year they did have pictures with them during the 1920s 1970s but not in my decade of the 1990s but it’s amazing I can use to get my U.S. Diplomatic Passport so I can travel to other countries and states I am 25 years old still going on 26 years old this year and I was born in 1991 the early 90s so my success has been great.

  3.  A full-scale legal inquest into the issue of some janitors accidentally throwing out a box of extremely old records would be a great example of a paranoid waste of taxpayer money.

  4. Parent volunteers are prohibited from access to students records under FERPA,. even volunteers  who are friends with the BHS volunteer coordinator.

  5. As you says “Mistakes do happen.”  That’s true.  And Ms. Abramson might be wishing she’d made different choices.  So shall we allow her the same grace that you wish to offer to the “cleaning staff” or whoever made the decision to put the records in the dumpster to begin with?

  6. I wonder if Ms. Abramson  had found these records while dumpster diving at her own childrens’ school, if she would have taken them directly to the press.  Or if realizing the flak the principal was likely to receive over this issue, she might have approached the principal or district in a  helpful – albeit concerned – manner.  School principals have an enormous job – made even harder by continued state budget cuts to public education –  and sometimes it is possible that they don’t always know every single thing the cleaning staff is throwing away.  Mistakes do happen.  And rather than force an already busy principal to spend their precious time fielding questions and accusations from neighbors, Ms. Abramson could have helped by simply asking the principal if there might be some other way to deal with the disposal of records – or if the principal even knew they were there.  Just remember, every second the LeConte principal has to deal with this is time taken away from her job of trying to educate current LeConte students.  Thanks a lot Ms. Abramson.

  7. Elmwood Neighbor, thanks for sharing that story.  My mom’s family lived in the flats near my grandfather’s cut flower nursery and although mom was out of the public school system by then, she had to return to Berkeley to get on buses to leave their home, with other elementary school children and their families.  They ended up in a camp in Topaz, Utah.  She was able to leave briefly by becoming a maid for a society family in Salt Lake City, but quit after they offered permanent sponsorship only if she agreed to become a Mormon.  She eventually returned and lived out her life in Berkeley, which she loved.  

  8. Did you look at the pictures?   The cards vary in what they contain (not all cards are the same format).   Some cards contain most or all of these things, for example:

    parents’ names
    parents’ occupations
    parents’ immigration status
    parents’ birthplace
    student’s name
    student’s date of birth
    student’s birthplace
    student’s dates of enrollment
    student’s destination upon de-enrollment
    language(s) spoken at home
    teacher’s names
    cross references to birth certificate records
    old addresses and phone numbers
    some other stuff I can’t quite make out

    With that kind of information bad guys can begin to work on things like obtaining escalating credentials in a false name, answering “security question” challenges to gain access to bank accounts and such, or one I myself have seen happen: impersonating a long lost relative.  (And those are just the “identity theft” uses.  There are other criminal uses.)

    Some of the information obtainable from these cards is no doubt also available from public databases given enough work but having it all neatly organized and collected for you — especially for such an interesting demographic of people — can save a potential attacker money.  That economic factor is critical.  Were this collection simply digitized and in the wrong hands, at least the more recent decades that it includes would have cash value on the black market for exactly this reason.

    Don’t make the mistake of thinking that digitizing the cards would need to be expensive.  Scanning and data entry (of so so quality) could probably be done for less than a quarter per card.   These wouldn’t be full sets of credentials but, for comparison, databases of full sets of credentials are said to go for small numbers of dollars per person — so the black market retail value of these cards would be somewhere in between and likely turn a profit.

    And that’s just treating them as generic which is fairly ridiculous.  If a lot of people who went through the Berkeley school district are represented here, the data set has a decent chance of containing some pretty “interesting” people from an identity theft point of view.

  9. I agree about the need to preserve for posterity and historical research.  Some years ago as a parent volunteer at another school I came across some old student records like those found in the trash as Le Conte. The cards I saw were from 1942  and included cards for Japanese American students who were “leaving the school.”  There was no mention, of course, of the internment camps to which they were headed with their families.  

    Reading the cards was profoundly sad as it so personalized Executive Order 9066.  

  10. I think you’ve been bitten by the paranoia bug, Bruce.

    Based on what we see in the photographs, these documents contain names, addresses, home phone numbers, and an emergency contact, the vast majority of which are almost certainly outdated and incorrect since many of these records are from almost a decade ago. If all it took to steal someone’s identity was a name, a phone number, and an address the phone book would be illegal.

  11. These records need to be digitized in HD for posterity and historical sake along with many other more complex reasons ( future historical research being one )  Those photographs alone are too precious to just destroy.  What were these people thinking!  This would never ever be done in Germany.  Are people that disposable in North America?  Apparently so….

  12. Will contact Dept. of Education in DC tomorrow, so they can investigate.  Also, I think BUSD needs to pony up for identity monitoring service for the affected alumni. 

  13. There exist records disposal firms that specialize in this type of disposal. They recycle the paper and assure the safe destruction/shedding of the materials. They will come and pick up the boxes too. It’s really not expensive either. There are schedules established by the governing authority (CA state, BUSD, etc.) that prescribe the period of time records must be saved or archived, before they can be recycled/destroyed. I’m not familiar with these particular schedules, but for federal government records, the periods can range from 25, 75 years or permanently, depending on the type of record. It goes without saying that they shouldn’t be left unattended or discarded in the open. Probably done through ignorance of the governing statutes. Somebody trying to save time and/or money. Does the district have an archivist?

  14. From the photos it is apparent that these records contain personally identifying information suitable for use in identity  theft.   They are also educational records subject to numerous state and legal restrictions which may have been violated here.

    Please, Ms. Abramson: now that they are in your possession please do not casually hand over the records to anyone.  Please contact the state attorney general’s office (which will take some patience on the phone).  Please concurrently contact non-governmental but responsible organizations concerned with privacy such as the ACLU or maybe the Electronic Frontier Foundation (aka EFF — these aren’t computer records, obviously, but they are sensitive to related issues and might be able to suggest who to contact).

    For what it’s worth I’ll also contact at least the state AG’s office, in case all of these records now suddenly “disappear”.

    Also, did Berkeleyside make any effort to ensure that discarded records not in possession of Ms. Abramson were secured before running this story and those photos?

  15. Yes, there’s a privacy issue.  The records should be shredded, not discarded.  And I’ll bet my grammar school record is in there; would love to have it!

  16. Some questions come to mind: Has Berkeleyside or Ms. Abramson contacted BUSD about this find?  Were the boxes in a dumpster or left outside the building?  What is BUSD’s policy about old school records?  How long do they keep them?  How are they disposed of?  

    I can see easily how this happens: there are ancient boxes that have been sitting in a closet, school is starting in a couple of weeks and it’d be handy to have that extra space so a staff person is giving the direction to throw the boxes away.  Perhaps no one thought to check with the District — or maybe they did — and it wasn’t seen as an issue.  Maybe they’re too heavy to put in a dumpster so the boxes are left beside it.  Saturday morning, a neighbor comes to school to play …. (At least, that’s the narrative I imagine.)

    If it were my school record, I’d prefer it shredded.