IT Infrastructure

E-Mails Probe School Leaders’ Private Lives

By Catherine Gewertz — November 16, 2004 4 min read
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A young Michigan man who runs a Web site that supplies information about public schools sent hundreds of e-mails this fall to superintendents in four states, demanding that they reveal their sexual orientation and threatening to list them as gay if they did not respond.

Jeffrey S. Kowalski, 22, said he thought the information would be helpful to parents using his Web site. He also hoped that it might increase “hits” on the advertisements on his site, which could generate income for him.

Missouri law-enforcement authorities, however, saw the messages differently.

In court papers, state lawyers argued that the missives—sent out in October as supposed “open records requests”—violate a Missouri law forbidding misleading subject lines in electronic mail. They got Mr. Kowalski to agree to a court order, signed Oct. 29 by Camden County Circuit Court Judge Bruce E. Colyer, barring him from sending such e-mail or publishing false information on his Web site.

“We will not allow our public servants to be threatened and deceived,” state Attorney General Jay Nixon said in a statement issued after the judge granted the order.

Mr. Kowalski has been running the 2-year-old Web site from his apartment in Hemlock, Mich., while “taking a break” from college computer-science studies, he said in a telephone interview last week. He incorporated under the name of StarProse Corp., with an Abilene, Texas, mailing address. He said he had no idea his information requests would run afoul of the law.

“I don’t care whether they’re gay,” he said. “It’s just that with more stuff coming up now about discrimination in the schools, and stuff like kids wearing a gay-pride T-shirt to school, I thought it would be helpful to parents to have the [sexual orientation] information so they could know where superintendents stand on policies and practices.”

The Web site was built with data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, such as the address, enrollment, and staff size of a school, Mr. Kowalski said. He sent the e-mails to superintendents in California, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Texas in an effort to update and expand the information available on his site, he said.

Questionable Practice

One e-mail, sent Oct. 12 with the subject line “Open Records Request,” asked superintendents to state their salary, date of birth, race, and gender. It said that StarProse Corp. expected a response within three days, as required by Missouri’s open-records law, and that it was “prepared to pursue whatever legal remedy [is] necessary to obtain access to the requested records.”

Misleading Subject Line

A Web site operator ran afoul of Missouri law on misleading subject lines in e-mails by sending this query to superintendents:

From: StarProse Corp.
Sent: Wed., Oct. 20, 2004 12:36 AM
To: Superintendent
Subject: Open Records Request

Dear Superintendent:

Our company would like you to provide us with your sexual orientation. This information will be used to help parents when choosing a school for their children. We will be listing your sexual orientation as homosexual by default. If this is not your sexual orientation, please respond to this electronic mail message so we can update accordingly.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Sincerely,
StarProse Corp.

SOURCE: Missouri Attorney General’s Office

Another e-mail, sent Oct. 20 with the same subject line, asked for superintendents’ sexual orientation, saying it “will be used to help parents when choosing a school for their children.” It said the Web site “will be listing your sexual orientation as homosexual by default” if no response is received.

Except for the salary figure, the information Mr. Kowalski requested does not fall under Missouri’s open-records law, said Beth Hammock, a spokeswoman for Mr. Nixon. Using a misleading subject line in an e-mail also violates the state’s consumer-protection laws, she said.

“He was just asking for personal information under the guise of an open-records request,” she said. “It was deceptive.”

Clinton R. Waters, the superintendent of the 350-student Macks Creek R-V district, about 60 miles north of Springfield, Mo., said it was “kind of surprising” to receive the e-mail asking him to disclose his sexual orientation.

“It was such an obvious not-appropriate kind of information they were requesting,” he said. “Not that I’d have a problem revealing that. But it’s still inappropriate.”

Geanine Bloch was skeptical when she received the first e-mail. The superintendent of the 530-student Stoutland R-II district, about an hour’s drive east of Springfield, forwarded it to the Missouri Association of School Administrators. When the association advised that her salary was indeed public information, she sent that figure to StarProse, but did not answer the other questions.

Having dispatched her reply to the first e-mail, Ms. Bloch was incredulous when she received the second.

“My first thought was, ‘He wants to know the school’s sexual orientation?’ ” she said. “Then when I realized they were asking for my sexual orientation, I went, ‘That’s nobody’s business but my own.’ ”

When she forwarded that e-mail to the state administrators’ group, she was informed that the Missouri attorney general’s office was looking into the matter, she said.

Concern in California

The California School Boards Association, as well, heard from bewildered members about StarProse’s e-mails.

Richard L. Hamilton, the associate general counsel for the group, said several superintendents sought guidance from the organization after receiving StarProse e-mails. In the organization’s newsletter, he advised districts not to respond to the requests electronically, but in writing, and only to those sections that fell within the California open-records law, such as a superintendent’s salary.

Mr. Hamilton’s guidance noted that district policies often permit school officials to demand reimbursement for copying expenses related to public-records requests. It encouraged districts to tell StarProse that they would supply the requested public information once payment was received.

“We anticipated that this was going to be something that could become widespread,” said Mr. Hamilton. “We decided to take some preventive action and get the word out.”

Mr. Kowalski said he plans to keep asking district officials around the country for information to put on his Web site, but will comply with the Missouri court order. It requires him, among other things, not to publish the 15 to 20 responses he received from superintendents about their sexual orientation.

A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2004 edition of Education Week as E-Mails Probe School Leaders’ Private Lives

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