Octorara Intentionally Blocking Parents from Emailing Teachers

blocked-emailOn August 26th, the Octorara Area School District filed a Petition for Reconsideration with the Office of Open Records. They challenged the OOR order to produce records regarding Dr. Newcom’s contract extension. Their claim was spam filters blocked & purged my original request, and the request was therefore not valid. How did that happen?

In two affidavits, sworn under penalty of law,  Dr Newcome stated that the District marries the PowerSchool system with their spam filtering software. If a parent works for a company that is considered spammy, that parent is completely blocked from communicating with teachers or staff through email.

This spam trigger is by personal name only (e.g. “John Doe”). It does not matter if a parent’s communication is coming from their personal email account (yahoo mail, gmail, aol) or a business account. This means, if in the PowerSchool system, parent “John Doe” works for a company known to send unsolicited bulk messages, works for a company that could possibly send unsolicited bulk messages, or works for a company that could potentially have a website violating the District’s Acceptable Use Policy, the parent is all-together, completely black listed.

Dr Newcome stated, “the District’s spam filter stopped Mr. Alexander’s email because: (a) the text of the email included the name “Timothy Alexander”; (b) the District spam filter is programmed to cross-reference the text of incoming emails against the District’s database; (c) in the District’s database, “Timothy Alexander” is listed as employed with “Underworld Tattoo” (Attachment A); and (d) the District spam filter is directed to stop and purge emails from any source – such as individuals employed by a tattoo parlor – associated with “Adult Body Art.”

The “Attachment A” was my child’s parent information in the PowerSchool system that is suppose to aid in communication with the District, not black list parents. It is a complete misuse of personal information. So, we are to believe, because at one time I worked at a tattoo studio (one that no longer even exists) I have been block from emailing teachers and staff about my children’s progress.

This also has greater implications. If there are two parents with the name “John Doe,” and one gets blocked, they both get blocked. Why? …because the trigger is the person’s name only, without out any additional qualifiers. If Parent A works for a potentially spammy company, then Parent B gets black listed as well.

Most spam filters will use a weighted point system to determine if an email is actually spam. The filter will check the content, if an email was dated in the past, if the IP address is a known spammer, and other factors. However, what the Octorara School District does is intentionally uses student information to block actual PARENTS, by name only.

Does that make sense to you? As ludicrous as Dr Newcome’s statement is, there is no way to prove they don’t mishandle student information in this way. One could make a spam filter to block messages containing the word “hello” if they wanted. as silly as it would be.

It was because of this supposed District policy that, on October 7th, my appeal of the Petition for Reconsideration was denied. Dr Newcome’s testimony was the District uses student information within the PowerSchool system to target and black list parents from contacting teachers and other staff. The OOR determined that because of the policy, the District proved my original request was never received and the District does not need to provide any records.

However, the OOR did not answer the question of whether the records or the actions by the board should be public. It only determined that the original request was not received. I now have to determine if it is worth additional legal action to pursue.

Fact is, it was also stated that no records were even kept from the 2012 meetings in which the Board took official action. Thanks to the OOR’s timing, I have until after the election to make my decision… at least regarding the original request.

All this raises the question, “Why is the District using student information in this way?”

Are you on their black list? How would you know?

8 thoughts on “Octorara Intentionally Blocking Parents from Emailing Teachers

  1. Dr. Newcome is selling you a lot of bullshit here. I’ve worked with barracuda spam filters which has some of the most robust filtering controls and is used by many large companies and this sort of logic doesn’t add up.

    “(a) text of the email included the name “Timothy Alexander””
    So, what this “genius” is trying to have us believe is that no email got through their filters because it that the text “Timothy Alexander”? So, any email correspondence that Dr. Newcome had where you were being discussed made it to his inbox? Is it that exact phrase, or could emails with “Alexander, Timothy” pass the filter? Or was it any email that contained the word “Timothy” and “Alexander”? This is where I truly believe Newcome thinks he’s above us all.

    “(b) the District spam filter is programmed to cross-reference the text of incoming emails against the District’s database”
    This is another area where Newcome is just throwing terms out there to try and sound smart. With some spam filters, they give you an interface to add words and phrases to check mail against. Sometimes if they don’t have an interface, you can upload a formatted file to the server. The emails are ranked based on certain criteria, like you explained earlier. They check the ip of the smtp server that it was sent from and compare it with blacklisted servers. Other flags they check for is o make sure that the email has a valid reply-to email address, a subject, a message, it also may check attachments for certain file extensions that are deemed “malware-ish”… like “.bat, .exe, .zip, .tar, .tgz, etc”. They usually start with a number, like 10, and for each flag that is brought up they minus 1. When it reaches a certain number, it’s deemed spam and does not pass through the server. That doesn’t mean that the email is automatically deleted. Most systems hold on to spam mail for a certain amount of time before it’s purged. So, if you email was in fact blocked by the spam filter, you should be able to log in to the spam server and view the filtered emails. In the same way that you should be able to log in and view the sent emails. Regardless, Newcome again is lying.

    (c) in the District’s database, “Timothy Alexander” is listed as employed with “Underworld Tattoo”
    Bullshit! Pure bullshit. NO spam filter has the ability to link random text words with a particular profession! That’s just ridiculous.

    (d) the District spam filter is directed to stop and purge emails from any source – such as individuals employed by a tattoo parlor – associated with “Adult Body Art.”
    Again, this must be the most advanced spam filtering service in the world! You can not only filter particular words… but you can also determine the genre of business that the word is coming from. It’s an amazing achievement in programming!

    I think the fact that Newsome is using this bullshit explanation is insulting in itself, but the fact that some moron at the Office of Open Records actually BELIEVED that crock of shit just proves that we need to use this amazing spam filtering software and convert it to filter out these imbeciles when hiring state employees.

  2. Not that I want to beat a dead horse here, but I did search out this company that sells schools on the “PowerSchool” system and they do not list “spam-filtering” as part of it’s program.
    http://www.pearsonschoolsystems.com/

    Looking over the site, it seems as if they provide a way to email out and to get email notifications from their software, but there is NO documentation discussing spam filtering. I’m assuming that if, and that’s a big IF, they actually have a spam filtering service… that it is a separate service from the PowerSchool software. I don’t think, I know you’re being lied to Tim.

  3. Ok. Now it is getting thick.

    I’ve worked in the IT industry for the last 18 years. This is 100% bull from a technology perspective, and clearly they have twisted the story around in a creative way to turn it back around on you. This is a childish, feeble attempt to slander. If this story was hatched in Dr Newcome’s brain then I’ve lost all respect for him & want him gone.

    • Since it was a statement made under oath, the presumption is that it is factual.

      However, I think that is worse.

      Think about it… to do what they say they do, they had to write a script that scours STUDENT information, and intentionally black list PARENTS just because they don’t like where the parent may work.

      It makes no rational sense whatsoever.

      • Tim,
        Sorry to keep bringing this up. Do you have a transcript or a description of what Dr. Newcome actually said? I’ve discussed this with other IT people that I work with and I’m friends with and we all are having a hard time understanding the defense. Do you know what spam filters they use? What was the email address that they initially flagged (the tattoo one)? Does their system automatically flag emails as “questionable” that contain the term ‘tattoo’? or is this a manual process? In the printout of the spam folder that Dr. Newcome provided, was it from the actual spam server? or was this in his email program?

        I have more questions, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

        Thanks in advance,
        John

      • I can email you the scanned copies if you like, but this is what was stated. In the first affidavit Dr Newcome stated:

        “10. After learning of Mr. Alexander’s request and appeal, I directed the District’s Information Technology Department to check into the situation.

        “11. The District Information Technology Department discovered that Mr.s Alexander’s June 19, 2013 email request to “lbowman@octorara.org” and “newcome@octorara.org” was stopped and then purged by the District’s “spam” filter and was not delivered to either School Board President Bowman or myself.

        “12. The District Information Technology Department advised me that Mr Alexander’s June 19, 2013 email request was stopped and purged by the District spam filter because the Distrcit’s database indicates Mr. Alexander is employed by “Underworld Tattoo” and the spam filter is programmed to stop and then purge emails from any source associated with ‘Adult Body Art.'”

        The district attached this from one of my blog posts: https://octorarataxes.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/board-email.png

        As you can see the domain was homesinchesco.com.

        I misunderstood Necomes statement to mean they were claiming the email came from an “Underworld Tattoo” email address, which it was not. I pointed out that fact to the OOR. Newcome then clarified in a second affidavit in September. At that time Necome stated:

        “9. In his August 26th email, Mr Alexander points out he did not send his email using his ‘Underworld Tattoo’ email address. Based on that fact, Mr. Alexander implies the Distinct lied about his request being stopped by the District’s spam filters.

        “10. However, the District did not allege in the Petition for Reconsideration that the spam filter stopped the email request because Mr. Alexander used his ‘Underworld Tattoo’ email address.

        “11. Rather, the District alleged the following in the Petition: ‘According to the information in the District’s database, Mr. Alexander is employed by “Underworld Tattoo.” The District’s spam filter is programmed to stop and then purge any email from any source associated with “Adult Body Art”.’

        “12. By way of additional explanation, the District’s spam filter stopped Mr. Alexander’s email because: (a) the text of the email included the name “Timothy Alexander”; (b) the District spam filter is programmed to cross-reference the text of incoming emails against the District’s database; (c) in the District’s database, “Timothy Alexander” is listed as employed with “Underworld Tattoo” (Attachment A); and (d) the District spam filter is directed to stop and purge emails from any source – such as individuals employed by a tattoo parlor – associated with “Adult Body Art.”

        As stated in the article, “Attachment A” was a screen capture of my child’s parent information from the PowerSchool system.

        They do not mention which spam filtering program they use. As stated above, the original email was not from a tattoo website or business, nor (from their explanation) did it need to be. According to the statements, the sole trigger was “Timothy Alexander” because (according to their explanation) their spam filter uses the name “Timothy Alexander” to imply “Adult Body Art”.

        With the second affidavit, “Attachment B” was a screen capture of the spam folder for “lbowman@octorara.org” and shows my email from “tim@homesinchesco.com” with the subject “Right-To-Know Uniform Request Form”. The filter labeled the email “Reason: Blocked Category adult bodyart”. It ws thier proof the spam filter did snag the email. However, it also shows the District had the option to “Deliver Once” or “Always Allow”. So, it was not immediately purged as stated.

        In fact, two copies of my original email was sitting in the spam folder for “lbowman@octorara.org,” when only one was sent. It had me questioning if emails to “schoolboard@octorara.org” (the one they claim is internal only) get automatically forwarded to “lbowman@octorara.org” or possibly all board members.

  4. Hi Tim,
    Sorry for the delayed response.
    Again, I find Newcome’s explanation extremely questionable. And based on the explanation, there is a quick and easy way to test their spam filters to see if what they say happen is even possible. I’m sure they would never agree to the test because the outcome may not be something they would want.

    A couple more questions for you if you don’t mind. I’m trying to nail down the spam filtering system that they are possibly using based on your description. Did the screenshot of the spam folder look anything like the screenshots for this program?
    http://www.lightspeedsystems.com/products/rocket/email-management/
    This system does look like it has the ability to block emails based on “adult.bodyart”. There are categories that can be created and labeled similar to movies. “adult.bodyart” is given an ‘R’ content rating and a category type of “NB – Adult”. This would probably could stop emails coming in from a domain for a tattoo shop, but not all tattoo shop domain’s have the word “tattoo” or “piercing” in it, so I would assume that the next check would be the email content. If the content contained flagged keywords then I could see how the email would be labeled as spam. Then again, any teacher, student or administrator that sent an email containing the word ‘tattoo’ or ‘piercing’ could be flagged. This doesn’t explain how your email from homesinchesco.com got flagged.

    What they’re trying to have us believe is that, I guess, at some point you sent an email through their servers using your underworldtattoo.com email address. The spam server detected the word ‘tattoo’ in the domain and extracted the name ‘Timothy Alexander’ from the ‘from’ attribute and added it to their double secret, spam filtering list. So now, any email received with the ‘from’ attribute as ‘Timothy Alexander’ must be associated with the underworldtattoo.com address and should be flagged.

    Not possible, regardless of the software. The only way to block ‘Timothy Alexander’ is to actually add ‘Timothy Alexander’ as a main filter. If they’ve done that, then you have a bigger problem where school administrators can arbitrarily block email from any parent they don’t like. Regardless, like I said earlier, I have a quick, easy test email program that I can run that would be able to test Dr. Newcome’s defense. If it passes, then I would admit defeat and move on. I don’t see them wanted to do the test.

    If you want to forward the documents to me, I wouldn’t mind taking a look at them.

    • No, what they’re trying to have us believe is that, because their database has me listed as working at a tattoo studio, the spam server identify all emails coming from “Timothy Alexander” as coming from a tattoo studio.

      The spam folder capture does not look like those from Lightspeed Systems. I looked at their Email-Management.pdf, and the end-user spam page. If it is Lightspeed, it is a much older version.

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