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DPI investigation provides context to text messages referenced in Istation case

An internal investigation at the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), according to a statement released Friday, found a computer of a former employee was linked to her personal text messages long after she retired. Some of those texts ended up making their way into the courtroom in a case reviewing the department’s process of choosing a literacy assessment tool.

The investigation, according to the DPI statement, was initiated by allegations from the former employee that her messages were still being accessed on the computer she used in her old job.

A text message exchange between two former DPI employees released by the department last summer referenced a call with a member of the evaluation panel choosing the state’s assessment platform to test young readers as part of the Read to Achieve program.

The members of the evaluation panel had signed non-disclosure agreements and were not supposed to share information related to the procurement process. The exchange accuses state Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson of trying to sway the panel in favor of e-learning company Istation.

Photo courtesy of public records released by the Department of Public Instruction

Amplify, the company with which the state previously had a contract to assess early reading, filed a protest in June 2019 after Johnson announced the state’s selection of Istation, claiming that the procurement process was unfair.

The statement released by DPI on Friday says the former employee had synced her computer to her personal text messages while working in the department’s K-3 literacy division “in violation of the state’s acceptable use and internet security policy.” The statement says she retired in October 2017.

The statement says her successor, who inherited her computer, was a friend of the former employee and continued to read her personal messages “as a source of entertainment and information on personal matters.” The successor also shared the messages with at least one other colleague, the statement reads.

After her successor’s retirement, the next person who inherited the computer continued to read the messages, the statement says. That person, according to the investigation, shared a screenshot of a text message conversation with her supervisor in February 2019.

Johnson pointed to the text message chain in July 2019, which he said was provided to DPI by a “whistleblower,” as the reason why the procurement process to pick a vendor was canceled a second time, stating there was a confidentiality breach by an evaluation team member.

The full DPI statement is below.

The agency has completed its investigation into a former employee’s allegations that her personal text messages were accessed via a DPI-issued device. The former employee admitted that she connected her DPI-issued devices to her personal text messaging accounts in violation of the state’s acceptable use and internet security policy. The investigation concluded that after the former employee retired in October 2017, her former agency-issued desktop computer remained connected to her personal accounts and was transferred to her successor. This individual was a social friend of the former employee and viewed the text messages as a source of entertainment and information on personal matters. The individual shared the former employee’s text messages with at least one other career employee in the K-3 literacy division.

Upon that individual’s retirement, the desktop was transferred to the career K-3 literacy employee. That employee continued to view the former employee’s personal text messages and admitted to providing a screenshot of a text message conversation to her supervisor in February 2019. The supervisor informed DPI leadership that the screenshot had been slipped under her door by an unknown individual. Shortly thereafter, the employee disconnected the desktop from the text messaging account. DPI has examined each device that was assigned to the former employee and has determined that they are no longer connected to any personal email or messaging accounts. The investigation concluded that knowledge of access to the personal account was limited to the K-3 literacy office.

The Department of Information Technology, which oversaw the January hearing in the case between DPI and Amplify, has yet to release a decision.

To catch up on the events leading up to the hearing, see the timeline below.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.