For many independent schools, developing or revising a document retention policy can seem like a daunting task. The sheer number and volume of different types of paper documents generated in any given school year – not to mention electronic documents – can leave one's head spinning. With the following roadmap, independent schools can develop a document retention policy that is legally compliant and reflects their circumstances:
- Identify the categories and types of documents generated. As an initial step, independent schools would be wise to identify the categories and types of documents typically generated during the course of any school year. A helpful starting point is to speak to administrators or school leaders in each division or department to understand what each generates on a routine basis. For example, does the school's admissions office – in addition to accepting the written applications – also take handwritten or typed notes of applicant interviews or family meetings? What kind of documentation is generated in deciding whom to admit, to waitlist, and to decline? By speaking with the employees who create school records in the course of their work, an independent school can better understand what should be captured in the document retention policy.
- Remember electronic documents. As they take their documents and communications online, schools are also increasingly creating electronic records. When it comes to electronic records, it is wise to treat any electronic record as the school would a similar paper record, meaning that however long the school retains a paper record on the subject, it should retain that electronic record (for example, an email or online application) for the same length of time.
- Consult federal and state laws. Both federal and state laws also contain requirements for independent schools to retain certain records for specific periods of time. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Fair Labor Standards Act, and Family Medical Leave Act all specify how long certain records relating to employees should be kept. Similarly, employers must keep the completed Forms I-9 for a certain amount of time after employees have stopped working for them – either three years after hiring or one year after employment ends, whichever date is later. Understanding the legal obligations relevant to certain categories of documents will help frame an independent school's policy.
- Consider possible statutes of limitations. A statute of limitations is a period within which someone who has a legal claim against the school – employee, student, or otherwise – must bring their claim in court; otherwise the claim is considered "time-barred." Independent schools will want to consult with their counsel to identify and consider possible statutes of limitations that may be relevant to them and incorporate these into their document retention policies. An important caveat to remember is that statutes of limitations can shift periodically – and in certain circumstances (for example, certain sexual abuse actions) states have relaxed their statutes of limitations for a set period of time to allow otherwise time-barred claims to proceed.
- Certain records should be retained permanently. Certain records should be retained permanently. Included among these records are the school's financial statements, annual reports, articles of incorporation, audits, board meeting minutes, important legal correspondence, tax returns, and other, similar documents. Also included among the records that should be retained permanently are the school's insurance policies (expired and current), as well as any claims that have been filed on such policies. Expired insurance policies will be particularly important to have available should a statute of limitations shift, and an otherwise "time-barred" claim can now be brought in court.
- Ensure the policy is user-friendly. Even the best-written document retention policy will be of little help if the policy is not easy to understand. Be sure to train employees to understand what is expected of them in assisting the school in retaining certain documents.
In sum, a well-crafted document retention policy will help a school minimize the paper records it needs to maintain, but it will also ensure that the school has retained important documents that it may need in the future. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to document retention – by partnering with certain employees and consulting legal counsel, schools can create a policy that will fit their needs.