Spring Cleaning – A Clean Flush

The smell of fresh-cut grass is in the air, dandelions have appeared, and the sounds of birds have begun to crescendo in my neighborhood. Spring is here. It’s beautiful — well, with the exception of the annual “bulky trash pickup.” My city, like many others, has a week in April designated to getting rid of all the large items residents failed to dispose of during the rest of the year. Mattresses, broken-down couches, and thousands of odds and ends adorn the streets of the city. Out-of-towners and neighbors alike circle the streets and scavenge the heaps of refuse on the curb, looking for discarded items that might be useful for their purposes. These scavengers often pile their vehicles so high, it puts the Beverly Hillbillies’ rig to shame.

I’ve made a drinking game of sitting on my front porch and watching the show: If something is taken from a neighbor’s yard, you take a drink; if something is retrieved from your yard, you finish your drink. It has become something of a holiday for me, and it’s something I look forward to — that is, until the Google Street View car decided to map my city during bulky trash pickup week. You see, this year, I set out my own pile of bulky trash, and in that pile was an old, broken toilet. For the foreseeable future of internet history, my house will be pictured with a pile of junk and a mangled porcelain throne adorning the driveway. 

It makes for a good story at least, and I’ll be watching Google Maps over the next few months for the portrait of my home that I will forever cherish. You may be asking yourself at this point: What in the world does this have to do with K-12 tech? I promise I’m going somewhere with this…

Addressing Physical Tech Surplus

When I saw the Google Street View car taking pictures of my trash, I watched the intersection of my physical junk with technology and it made me think back to the piles of crap I used to hold onto in my tech office. Are you like me, with piles of stuff you’re holding onto “just in case?” Are there items in your storage room you don’t know what to do with and feel like you don’t have the bandwidth to take care of them? 

Take this as your wake-up call. It’s time to get rid of that crap. Like the toilet on my curb, give it a flush. You don’t need 300 PS2 keyboards and mice or that old spool of multi-mode fiber. You can let go of them.

For this process, I recommend employing a high-school intern and a three-pile system:

  1. Items you must keep.
  2. Items not worth anything that need to be declared scrap or tossed in the trash.
  3. Items of value to be surplused.

Items to keep

For those items you must keep, set them aside and figure out a good way to organize them. Maybe they are spare parts for equipment you currently have deployed. Make sure they’re accessible for when $h!t hits the fan. One recommendation I’ve heard from a fellow tech director to help you know if you should keep the item is to get rid of half of it each year. That way you’ll be able to tell year by year if you still need to keep the stock around.

Items to scrap

Chances are there’s a recycler in your area who will come to your door and pick up scrap items for free. I had a deal with a local vocational tech program that would pick up all my scrap for me quarterly and recycle it. Free. Of. Charge. I would occasionally slip a CRT monitor in there, and they’d take it because of our good working relationship. Be sure you’re following local laws and school policies in terms of designating items as scrap.

Items to surplus

I’m willing to bet you have items in your closet that other schools or institutions need. Like my used junk, put them on your metaphorical curb for pickup by another person in need. There are plenty of companies out there that specialize in resale of items. Maybe your district or school is a public institution and uses an online bidding site for government items. Get that stuff designated a surplus and list it. Maybe you have a large quantity of valuable devices and you want to get the most out of them. You can reach out to asset recovery companies and get an average price for sale. I usually had companies submit proposals and took the most advantageous to my board of education. In a small school district, I regularly recovered $30,000-$100,000 off of asset sales through this process. And most times, once the paperwork is all complete, it’s smooth sailing. The asset company will send someone to your school to package up all your goods and ship them out for you. 

Addressing Data Disposal in Schools

We also need to be setting our data that’s outside the need for retention out to the curb, so to speak. Schools accumulate an immense amount of student and staff data over the years — everything from grades and test scores to personal information. Ultimately, holding data that we don’t need becomes a liability.

What to Keep and What to Toss

Deciding what data to retain and destroy might seem like a daunting task, but the first place to start is with your data retention schedules. Ultimately, you need to begin with state statutes. In Missouri, my home state, this can be found on the secretary of state’s website. All general, local, and public school retention schedules are clearly outlined. From there, check your school retention schedules. Often individual policies on records retention are delegated and authorized to local governing bodies to establish. If you don’t have a retention schedule outlined, you may want to check with your legal counsel or policy organization for recommended schedules to be created or adopted by your school or institution.

If you already have a retention schedule, now is a good time to check your compliance with that schedule. Ask yourself: Does the data we store onsite and the data we have stored in third-party providers fall within our retention schedules? If not, you need to take action. 

What’s the Big Deal With Having Old Data?

In many cases you need to retain certain records for a very long period of time. But, in the cases where you can get rid of it, it’s imperative for two reasons:

  1. Holding data outside your retention schedules is breaking the law or local policy. Non-compliance can result in fines, legal disputes, and damage to the institution’s reputation. 
  2. Holding data outside your retention schedules is a liability. In case of a data breach, possessing outdated or unnecessary data can amplify a school’s liability. Courts may view failure to manage data properly as negligence, leading to punitive damages. Additionally, holding onto data beyond its legal retention period could result in privacy rights violations, further increasing legal risks. And apart from it being a “liability” in the legal sense, it’s a liability in the sense of properly protecting your patrons’ data privacy. 

How to Dispose of Your Data

When it comes to disposing of your data, it is important to review your agreements with third-party vendors. Contracts should include clauses that guarantee the destruction of data upon request. For data stored onsite, proper deletion and destruction techniques must be used. Don’t just hit “delete”—ensure the data is completely irretrievable. And for physical media like hard drives or USB sticks? They need to be destroyed—shredded, crushed, or otherwise rendered unusable. It is important to assign a dedicated liaison or person in charge of compliance. This could be a really fun job — I once spent an afternoon putting hard drives through a press. It was cathartic. 

On a granular level, it might be good to share with your staff the importance of cleaning up the data and files held on their individual computers. Explain the liability and ensure they go through a similar spring cleaning process.

Addressing Software and Subscription Junk

In the same vein of offloading or destroying data, we also need to be aware of the software and subscriptions gathering dust or causing problems. Getting rid of all the extra fat (in terms of subscriptions and software) accumulated during the COVID-19 pandemic is something I’m particularly passionate about. Federal dollars came rolling in, and we almost couldn’t find enough ways to spend them. Let’s be real; we probably purchased a few things we didn’t really need, and we probably purchased a few things we couldn’t necessarily implement properly (staffing, resources, etc.). In the spirit of setting some things out on the curb, let’s delve into how schools can assess and manage their software portfolio effectively.

Determining Usefulness and ROI

Schools should begin by analyzing the usage and return on investment of paid software. If a tool is rarely used, it not only squanders financial resources but also poses a security risk as each unused application is a potential entry point for data breaches. There are many resources built into the tools you already use to determine if they are being used properly or regularly. Clever, for example, will show you some of the usage statistics of linked applications. Google Admin may be another place to review usage and installed applications. The decision to keep or discard software should hinge on its actual utility and contribution to educational and operational outcomes.

With regards to evaluating education software the focus should be on keeping only the ones that enhance the learning environment without adding unnecessary complexity. Every tool should undergo a thorough evaluation to ensure it enriches education and doesn’t overcomplicate processes or duplicate functionalities of other tools. To be clear, this is not something that should be undertaken solely by the IT department. The process should involve school leaders and curriculum leaders as well. 

In the review process, It is essential for schools to develop and maintain a list of approved software. Some guiding principles in reviewing and developing your catalog include:

  • Compliance with federal laws regarding data privacy agreements.
  • The type of student data required by the software.
  • Its relevance and contribution to the curriculum.
  • Compatibility and integration with existing tools and single sign-on (SSO) platforms.
  • Avoidance of redundancy, ensuring it doesn’t replicate the functions of other approved resources, which could confuse students and parents.

This list is not exhaustive but is a starting point on developing criteria to evaluate your software library on. 

Regular Updates and Security Assurances

Once you have identified your list of approved software, you’ll need to heavily focus on managing that software, ensuring that all locally installed software is regularly updated to address security vulnerabilities. Similarly, any third-party services must provide assurances of timely updates and patches. Schools need to have systems in place for regular software updates and must find ways to check compliance. 

Taking Out the Trash

The day after the Google Street View car exposed my artful display of trash on the curb, the sanitation workers came and picked up my pile. My house felt fresh, and I was rid of many of the items that caused me angst and frustration in my home. In a similar way, we should use spring cleaning as a good reminder to get rid of the junk we have laying around our tech departments. Ultimately, you will find yourself with more physical space and organization and sleep better at night, knowing that your attack surface was reduced. I hope you’ll take a few moments to rummage through your junk, set it out on the curb, and sit back with a drink in hand while it is carted away, out of your responsibility. 

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