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Student Privacy

Introduction | FERPA History | FERPA Protections | What to Do If Your Privacy Is Violated |
Student Profiling and No Child Left Behind | SEVIS | State Laws | News | Resources | Cases

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Students do not shed all of their rights at the schoolhouse gate, including the right to privacy.  Although recent Supreme Court decisions have diminished this right, there are substantial federal and state protections for the privacy of students' educational records. The most prominent of the federal protections for student privacy is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), also known as the "Buckley Amendment, " FERPA protects the confidentiality of student records to some extent, while also giving students the right to review their own records.

Students' personal information is often collected through in-school surveys, sometimes for commercial use. Congress most recently addressed such surveys in the No Child Left Behind Act, a broad federal educational act. The Act provides parents and students the right to be notified of, and consent to, the collection of student information. However, the Act includes many exceptions to this right.

Congress does not always expand privacy when it addresses the collection of student information. Another provision of No Child Left Behind mandates that high schools turn over student contact information to military recruiters, unless parents or students explicitly opt out of such disclosure. And in 2002, Congress amended FERPA, via the USA PATRIOT Act, to require schools to transmit information about immigrant students to the INS. Under this program, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, schools had to begin in 2003 reporting immigrants' academic information, such as disciplinary actions or changes in programs of study.

Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act

The FERPA protects the confidentiality of student educational records. The Act applies to any public or private elementary, secondary, or post-secondary school and any state or local education agency that receives federal funds. All public schools and virtually all private schools are covered by FERPA because they receive some sort of federal funding.

The Act has two parts. First, it gives students the right to inspect and review their own education records, request corrections, halt the release of personally identifiable information, and obtain a copy of their institution's policy concerning access to educational records. (20 U.S.C.S. § 1232g(a)). Second, it prohibits educational institutions from disclosing "personally identifiable information in education records" without the written consent of the student, or if the student is a minor, the student's parents. (20 U.S.C.S. § 1232g(b)). Schools that fail to comply with FERPA risk losing federal funding.

However, there are several exceptions that allow the release of student records to certain parties or under certain conditions. Records may be released without the student's consent: (1) to school officials with a legitimate educational interest; (2) to other schools to which a student seeks or intends to enroll; (3) to education officials for audit and evaluation purposes; (4) to accrediting organizations; (5) to parties in connection with financial aid to a student; (6) to organizations conducting certain studies for or on behalf of a school; (7) to comply with a judicial order or lawfully issued subpoena; (8) in the case of health and safety emergencies; and (9) to state and local authorities within a juvenile justice system. (20 U.S.C.S. § 1232g(b)(1)).

In addition, some records maintained by schools are exempt from FERPA, including: (1) records in the sole possession of school officials; (2) records maintained by a law enforcement unit of the educational institution; (3) records of an educational institution's non-student employees; and (4) records on a student who is 18 years of age or older or who attends a post-secondary institution that are maintained by a health professional. (20 U.S.C.S. § 1232g(a)(4)(B)). In addition, FERPA allows, but does not require, schools to release "directory information," including students' names and addresses, to the public. (20 U.S.C.S. § 1232g(a)(5)(A)). However, this exception was modified in 2002, and high schools are now required to provide students' names, addresses and telephone numbers to military recruiters, unless a student or parent opts out of such disclosure.


The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also commonly referred to as the Buckley Amendment after its principal sponsor Sen. James Buckley, was signed into law by President Ford on August 21, 1974. Traditional legislative history for FERPA as it was first enacted is unavailable because the act was offered as an amendment on the Senate floor to a bill extending the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and was not the subject of committee consideration. Congress offered no opportunity to those affected by FERPA to be heard prior to its enactment. There was no legislative committee study and review nor any public hearings to receive testimony from institutions or individuals. However, in a speech explaining the act to the Legislative Conference of Parents and Teachers, Senator Buckley said FERPA was adopted in response to "the growing evidence of the abuse of student records across the nation."

Immediately following the enactment of FERPA, higher education officials became alarmed by the act's possible implications for colleges and universities. They voiced concern about what to do with existing records, such as letters of recommendation for college admissions, which were written under assurances of confidentiality, but open to student inspection under FERPA. These concerns led to major FERPA amendments that were enacted on December 31, 1974. Among other things, the amendments cleared up some of the law's ambiguous language and limited the right of post-secondary students to inspect and review records so that they would not have access to the financial records of their parents or to confidential letters of recommendation placed in their files before January 1, 1975.

The amendments' sponsors, Senators Buckley and Pell, also clarified the intent of FERPA by submitting a major source of legislative history for the amendments, the "Joint Statement in Explanation of Buckley/Pell Amendment." In the Joint Statement, the senators emphasized the need for parents to have access to the information contained in student education records in order to protect their children's interests.


Including the 1974 amendments, FERPA has been amended a total of nine times since its enactment. Through these amendments, Congress has continually recognized new circumstances under which personally identifiable information contained in education records can be disclosed without the consent of parents or students.

Protections offered by FERPA

Parents and Eligible Students

FERPA extends certain privacy rights to parents with regard to their children's education records. These rights transfer to the child when he or she reaches the age of 18, thus becoming a student eligible for rights under FERPA.

Parents have the right to inspect their children's education records, and eligible students have the right to inspect their own education records. A school must accommodate any inspection request within 45 days of receipt.

If a parent or eligible student is circumstantially unable to exercise the right to review the records, the school must provide copies of the records or otherwise make arrangements for the parents or eligible student to inspect the records.  A school cannot charge a fee merely to search for a student's records, but may charge a copying fee. Parents and eligible students also have the right to request that education records be amended if the records contain information thought to be inaccurate, misleading, or in violation of the student's privacy. If school denies such a request, parents and eligible students have a right to a hearing to review the school's decision.

Schools are required to inform parents and eligible students of their rights under FERPA. The method of providing such information is left to the discretion of the school. Generally, schools must obtain written consent from parents and eligible students before disclosing any personally identifiable information from a student's education record other than "directory information." But there are many exceptions to this general rule. A school may disclose personally identifiable information from education records without consent under the following circumstances:

Every school is required to notify parents and eligible students annually of their rights under FERPA. The notice can take any form the institution or agency considers appropriate, but must explain how a parent or eligible student may:

Schools are required to maintain a list of all individuals or organizations that have requested or obtained a student's education records. These records can only be accessed by a parent or eligible student, the school official responsible for education records and authorized auditing personnel. This list, which must be kept with the education record to which it pertains, must state the specific interest each requesting party has in the student's information. Third parties who obtain access to student education records must agree not to disclose the information to anyone else without a parent or eligible student's written consent.

Post-secondary Students

Students enrolled in post-secondary schools are considered eligible students under FERPA and have the right to review their own education records. However, post-secondary students may not review:

The education records of post-secondary students are also less secure. In addition to the circumstances under which personally identifiable information may be disclosed without consent, listed above, post-secondary schools may also disclose:

What to do if your school has violated your rights under FERPA:

If you think your or your child's FERPA rights have been violated, you can file a complaint with the Department of Education's Family Policy Compliance Office (FPC). Complaints should contain specific allegations of fact giving reasonable cause to believe that a violation of the Act or this part has occurred. Complaints must be filed within 180 days of the alleged violation, or at the time the complainant knew of the violation or reasonably should have known of the violation. If you fail to report a violation within this time period, you may request an extension from the FPC.

After the FPC receives a complaint, it will then notify the student and the school in writing if it initiates an investigation of the complaint. The notice to the school includes the substance of the alleged violation and asks the school to submit a written response to the complaint. The FPC will notify the complainant if it does not initiate an investigation of a complaint because the complaint is untimely or otherwise defective.

If the FPC initiates an investigation, it may permit the parties to submit further written or oral arguments or information. There is no deadline under FERPA for processing complaints, so it may take many months before the FPC makes a finding. However, once the FPC concludes its investigation, it will provide to both the complainant and the school written notice of its findings and the basis for its findings.

If the FPC finds that the school has violated FERPA, it will include in its findings a statement of the specific steps the school must take to comply and provide a reasonable period of time during which the school may voluntarily comply. If the school does not comply during the time period set out by the FPC, the secretary of the Department of Education may withhold payments to the school under any applicable federal program, issue a complaint to compel compliance through a cease-and-desist order, or terminate the school's eligibility to receive federal funding. If the secretary finds that an educational agency or institution has complied voluntarily, the Secretary will provide the complainant and the school written notice of the decision and its basis for the decision. 

No Private Cause of Action

Courts are unanimous in holding that FERPA does not provide the right to file a private lawsuit to challenge alleged violations. The Supreme Court held in June 2002 that students may not file a Section 1983 civil rights action against a school for alleged FERPA violations because the Act's nondisclosure provisions did not create any enforceable rights.

Student Profiling, Student Surveys, and The No Child Left Behind Act

American Student List Information BrokerageAmerican Student List sells databases of children's names in grades K-12 overlaid with data on sex, age, whether they own a telephone, income, religion, and their race or ethnicity. This information is often gleaned from surveys that are administered while children are in school under the pretense of college admissions and other education-related purposes. Students and parents do not know that their personal information is being used for the secondary purpose of marketing. The data is used for hawking credit cards, catalog items, magazines, student "recognition" products, and job recruitment. This image of American Student List data comes from the SRDS Direct Marketing List Manual, a list of marketing lists. It is not available online, but one can often find it in a library.

Student "recognition" products, such as "Who's Who Among American High School Students" and the "National Dean's List" have a strong marketing function. Information collected in composing both directories is used for marketing a wide variety of products wholly unrelated to education. And, although teachers and administrators are encouraged to nominate students and transfer data to the company, the reality is that a growing number of employers and colleges don't consider such recognition directories as meritorious.

In October 2002, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) settled cases against American Student List (ASL) and the National Research Center for College and University Admissions (NRCCUA) for collecting personal information from children using deceptive practices. The FTC complaint alleged that the companies operated a scheme to cull marketing data from student through surveys administered under the pretense of college admissions and scholarship opportunities.

NRCCUA sent letters to schools asking teachers to dedicate classroom time to administering detailed surveys for college admissions and financial aid purposes. These "Post-Secondary Planning" surveys elicited detailed personal information from students, including their religious affiliation, personal interests, and social attitudes. The surveys did have a privacy notice, but the language implied that the information was for educational purposes only. NRCCUA marketed the information collected to higher education institutions, but also shared the information with ASL, which used the data for direct marketing.

In August 2002, the New York Attorney General filed suit against Student Marketing Group (SMG), a company that collected information from students for direct marketing. The company was alleged to have formed a non-profit subsidiary, Educational Research Center of America (ERCA), that sent millions of surveys to high schools to collect information for college financial aid and scholarship opportunities. ERCA, without notice to the schools or students, was also using the information for direct marketing of magazines, credit cards, and other items. In January 2003, SMG and ERCA settled the New York Attorney General's case, and a separate investigation brought by the Federal Trade Commission.

Student profiling does not end with grade school. Profilers collect and use information from students in higher education as well. College students are targeted for magazine subscriptions, student "recognition" programs, credit cards, insurance solicitations, long distance plans, toys, cell phone plans, mail-order food, and other products. Often, college students' personal information is obtained through the institution itself. Institutions may reveal students' contact and activities (club membership) information through student directories, joint marketing agreements, or through state open records acts that require the release of enrollment lists.

The No Child Left Behind Act Limits Some Student Profiling

In 2001, President Bush signed into law H.R.1, a large-scale education bill that expands federal involvement in student testing, academic standards, and teacher quality. H.R.1 is also known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Included in the Act's 670 pages is Section 1061, a provision that provides students and parents with rights to be informed about, and opt out of, the in-school collection of students' personal information.

Section 1061 amends a part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, and applies to any "local educational agency"- meaning a public or private school, school district, or local board of education - that receives federal funds. It does not apply to colleges or universities. The local educational agencies (LEAs) must develop a number of policies, in consultation with parents, regarding the collection and use of student information. First, LEAs must adopt policies giving parents of minor students, and adult students, the right to inspect any survey created by a third party before it is administered in school. (20 U.S.C.S. § 1232h(a)). Second, LEAs must notify parents and adult students about, and allow them to decline participation in, surveys which collect information from students regarding a number of subjects:

(20 U.S.C.S. § 1232h(c)).

These categories are drawn from the 1978 Protection of Pupil Rights Amendments (PPRA) to the ESEA, also known as the Hatch Act. The PPRA, as updated in 1994, addresses only Department of Education-funded surveys, and requires schools and contractors to obtain written parental consent before minor students are required to participate in any Department survey, analysis, or evaluation that reveals information concerning the above categories of information. (20 U.S.C.S. § 1232h(b)). (The "religious practices, affiliations or beliefs" category was added by NCLB). NCLB's Section 1061 expands the PPRA significantly by applying this requirement to any survey collecting such information, not just to those surveys developed by the Department of Education.

Section 1061 also requires that parents and adult students be notified about in-school surveys conducted for sales or marketing purposes, and be able to opt of participation. (20 U.S.C.S. § 1232h(c)(1)(E)). However, NCLB carves out a number of exceptions to this restriction on commercial surveys. The exempted surveys, which may be administered without parental notification and without allowing opting out, involve an array of subjects:

(20 U.S.C.S. § 1232h(c)(4)).

Section 1061 leaves in place schools' ability, under the FERPA, to release students' "directory information" – such as addresses and phone numbers - as long as parents or adult students do not request that the information be kept private. (Opting out of such disclosure is usually performed by noting this preference on a form at the beginning of the school year.) According to a 2003 Department of Education letter, this means that schools may release to companies the directory information of students who are not opted out of release. However, if a company seeks personal, non- "directory" information – such as Social Security numbers – a school would be obligated under FERPA and, apparently, under Section 1061, to specifically notify parents and students of such collection and permit them to opt out.

Section 1061 also requires schools to:


History of the No Child Left Behind Act

In 2001, Senators Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Richard Shelby (R-AL) introduced Senate Bill 290, the Student Privacy Protection Act, to address the problem of "student profiling," the in school collection of data for marketing and sales purposes. The legislation would have required that before schools could provide companies with information collected from students in school, the schools would have to explain to parents what information would be disclosed, to whom it was going, how it would be used, and the amount of class time used to collect the information. The information could not be released without parents' consent. Further, the Dodd-Shelby bill would apparently have completely prohibited a company from itself gathering students' information, as opposed to requesting the information from a school, if the information was to be used for a commercial purpose. College recruiting and book clubs were exempted from this "commercial purpose" category.

Senator Dodd, in introducing the bill, pointed to examples of marketing in schools, such as the 27-page survey "All About Me" that a New Jersey television station had induced elementary students to fill out for marketing purposes. "If someone came to your home and started to ask your child about his or her age, gender, neighborhood, food preferences, and entertainment preferences, surely you would want to know the purpose of such questions before deciding whether to consent to them," Dodd's introduction stated. "We think parents and children are entitled to no less consideration just because a child is in school."

Congress, however, adopted compromise language after being lobbied by groups such as the American Advertising Federation and American Student List, a company that sells personal information about tens of millions of American students. The resulting provision, Section 1061 of the No Child Left Behind Act, departed significantly from the Dodd-Shelby bill by not requiring parents' written consent for companies to collect information from students. Section 1061 only mandates that parents and adult students be given the opportunity to opt out of commercial surveys. In other words, the default rule shifted from "no collection unless affirmatively granted permission," to "collection unless denied permission." The burden falls on the student or parent to make it known that they do not want personal student information to be gathered by companies. In addition, Section 1061 departed from the Dodd-Shelby bill by adding fundraising programs, magazine sellers and "student recognition programs" to the list of companies not considered "commercial." These companies are therefore exempt from the requirement that parents and students be given the opportunity to opt-out of their surveys.

Military Access to Students and Student Information

Two laws were passed in 2001 which make it easier for military recruiters to access high school students' contact information. The laws changed schools' previous ability, under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), to choose to whom they would release such information. Detailed information about this issue is on EPIC's DOD Recruiting Database Page.

Tracking and Managing Student Information

Although the No Child Left Behind Act explicitly prohibits the creation of a nationwide student database, the Act does set up requirements for collecting information from students that may encourage school districts and states to develop new ways to track students. The NCLB requires each state to create procedures for "facilitating the transfer of disciplinary records" to any school in which a student enrolls or seeks to enroll. (20 U.S.C.S. §7165). NCLB also includes vast guidelines and requirements for monitoring student achievement. Schools, districts and states will link test scores to, for instance, information like race and socioeconomic status. Some states have created unique identifiers for all students that can carry many pieces of information, and some of these systems have raised the concern of groups like the ACLU.

Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS)

In January 2002, FERPA was amended to permit the Attorney General to obtain a court order to collect education records from schools for the purposes of investigating or prosecuting terrorism. The INS, in conjunction with a number of other federal agencies, is currently in the initial stages of implementing the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).

SEVIS is an Internet-based system that allows schools to transmit student information to the INS for purposes of tracking and monitoring non-immigrant and exchange students. Accessible information includes a student's personally identifiable information, admission at port of entry, academic information, such as changes in program of study, and disciplinary information. Schools will be required to transmit such information to the INS for the duration of a student's stay in the United States. The USA PATRIOT Act requires that SEVIS be fully implemented by January 1, 2003.

Federal Substance Abuse Records Laws: If a state law gives older minors the right to get treatment or counseling for substance abuse problems without parental consent, and school-based persons operate a program to provide that assistance, the federal laws require that any record in the student's file relating to the assistance be kept confidential--even from the minor's parents--unless the minor consents to a release.

Minors' Reproductive Rights: If a student confides in school personnel about pregnancy or birth control issues, case law establishing minors' reproductive rights probably limits schools' ability to disclose this information to the student's parents without his or her consent.

State laws

As of September 2002, thirty-five states have passed laws supplementing the protection of education records provided by FERPA. The states that offer the most protection include:

California: College and university students have a right to privacy under the state Constitution. Parents have a right to inspect children's records in both public and private schools. (Cal. Educ. Code § 49060-49083.)

Louisiana: A 1974 Louisiana Attorney General's opinion states that children have a right to privacy in schools. Their records are considered confidential.

Nebraska: Academic and disciplinary records are to be kept separate. Disciplinary records are destroyed at the time of the student's graduation if authorized by the state records board. (Neb. Rev. Stat. § 79-4,157.)

Ohio: Schools are forbidden to release education records for any profit-making activity. (Ohio Rev. Code § 3319.321.)

Oklahoma: It is a misdemeanor for a teacher to reveal any information about a child obtained in the teacher's professional capacity, except as required by fulfillment of contractual obligations or as requested by a parent. (Okla. Stat. Ann. 7-6-115.)

Texas: Education records are considered confidential and can be released only upon request of school personnel, a student, parent, or spouse. (Tex. Gov. Code § 552.114).

The Fourth Amendment and Public Schools

School Drug Testing

The Supreme Court bolstered schools' abilities to conduct random, suspicionless drug tests of students in June 2002 by ruling that a public high school in Oklahoma did not violate its students' Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches by requiring all students who participate in extracurricular activities to submit to urinalysis testing for illegal drugs.  In Board of Ed. of Independent School Dist. No. 92 of Pottawatomie Cty. v. Earls, 536 U.S. ___, No. 01-332 (2002), the Court ruled that students who voluntarily participate in extracurricular activities have a limited expectation of privacy because they voluntarily subject themselves to intrusions on their privacy, such as "occasional off-campus travel and communal undress." Furthermore, the Court found that requiring students to submit urine samples (by urinating in a bathroom stall while the teacher stood outside the stall listening "for the normal sounds of urination in order to guard against tampered specimens and to insure an accurate chain of custody") was "minimally intrusive" and a "not significant" invasion of students' privacy.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Breyer compared student drug testing to other responsibilities that schools must bear, such as providing school lunches.  Schools "prepare pupils for citizenship in the Republic [and] inculcate the habits and manners of civility as values in themselves conductive to happiness and as indispensable to the practice of self-government in the community and the nation," Breyer said.

The Court's decision in Earls followed a 1995 decision upholding the random, suspicionless drug testing of student athletes. Vernonia School Dist. 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995). In that case, the Court said that athletes had a diminished expectation of privacy in relation to other students, noting that athletes were required to undergo physical exams before being allowed to join a team and undress and shower in communal locker rooms.

Searches of Students' Belongings

In New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985), the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures applies to searches conducted by public school officials, who are not exempt from the Amendment's dictates by virtue of the special nature of their authority over schoolchildren. However, the Court said that school officials do not have to obtain a warrant before searching a student who is under their authority if the officials have reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated the law or the rules of the school. The court held that searches of students' belongings are permissible if the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the student's age and sex and the nature of the infraction.

In T.L.O., the court said school officials' search of a female student's purse was reasonable after she had been caught smoking by a teacher in violation of school rules and that evidence of marijuana use that school officials found in her purse and turned over to police could be admitted in court.

Related Student Privacy Issues

Campus Identification Cards

Many colleges and universities are employing identification cards that are used to access every facility or service on the campus. The goal of these cards is to create a seamless system where students can purchase items or access services with just one card.

These systems of identification pose new risks to privacy and autonomy. First, such systems can create a log of students' movements, which later can be accessed by police or other authorities. There is also the problem of malicious student or employee access-that is, often institutions hire students for positions where they can access the personal data of other students. With ubiquitous campus identification schemes, student employees or others may use the data to stalk or harass other students and employees.

Second, it creates an infrastructure that allows dataveillance. Such systems can allow secondary use of location or consumption data, much like supermarket-shopping cards are used now to profile what individuals purchase at stores. These cards eliminate cash transactions, and in doing so, may tie identity to every transaction. For instance, Blackboard's student identification system notes that it:

"Provide you [sic] users with identification cards and track user data. All user profiles are stored in a central database, and user data can be imported from a variety of commercial Student Information Systems (SIS).

NuVision Networks, Corp. markets their student identification system as one that can accommodate a number of campus activities, including student voting:

We've taken all the work out of college voting. With Campus Center it's easy to manage complex voting situations involving an unlimited number of specialized groups. Votes can be multiple choice or Yes/No, and since the actual tally is constantly displayed for each vote, there is really no need to post results. Student can watch the voting as it happens from any network computer.

One cannot take "all the work out" of voting. Electronic voting is an extremely complex topic that implicates risks to the secret ballot, and inference with the vote. Bryn Mawr Professor Rebecca Mercuri, a leading authority in electronic voting notes:

Fully electronic systems do not provide any way that the voter can truly verify that the ballot cast corresponds to that being recorded, transmitted, or tabulated. Any programmer can write code that displays one thing on a screen, records something else, and prints yet another result. There is no known way to ensure that this is not happening inside of a voting system

Another service offered by Blackboard, "Bb One," allows off-campus use of campus identity cards. This system specifically allows direct marketing based on the identification system:

Bb One™ is a transaction-based outsourcing solution that enables the acceptance of the university ID card as a form of payment off-campus. Bb One provides students with a cashless, safe, and secure way to transact on and around campus while offering parents the assurance that their funds will be spent within a university-approved network. Blackboard develops a comprehensive off-campus merchant network on behalf of each university and manages every aspect of the program from merchant acquisition to merchant support. Participating merchants also benefit from access to a university-endorsed spending program and direct-to-student and parent marketing programs.

The security of these identification systems is also questionable. Most of the systems operate on Windows platforms, which are particularly vulnerable to malicious cracking. Furthermore, Blackboard Inc. has employed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to stop two students from delivering a lecture on the security vulnerabilities of the cards.

Campus Credit Card Marketing

Financial institutions are very aggressive in attracting student customers. New students generally have no debt, and little understanding of how credit cards and compound interest work. Many financial institutions actually have exclusive credit card marketing agreements on certain campuses, where the school profits from the issuance of credit cards to students. The pursuit of students after graduation is also privacy invasive, as alumni associations receive payment for selling personal information to the credit card companies.




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Last Updated: November 30, 2005
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