Pinelands District Investigates Data Breach

Pinelands Regional High School (Photo by Stephanie Faughnan)

  LITTLE EGG HARBOR – The Pinelands Regional School District acknowledged last week their investigation of a data breach that included information about personnel and students.

  In mid-March of this year, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Melissa McCooley received notification from the wife former board president Thomas “Tommy” Williams that her husband would be undergoing an emergency procedure. McCooley was further advised that Williams would not be available for a while.

  During that same time period, the school district’s technology department and McCooley received alerts regarding suspicious log-ins to Williams’ email account. McCooley reported the issue to the school board and secured approval for a complete forensic audit to search for any potential security breaches.

  “Some people have their board emails on their cellphones or access them from their home PCs,” explained August Daleo, who ultimately replaced Williams as board president. “Those kinds of log-ins are consistent and don’t raise red flags. These logins were pinging all over the place.”

  Records showed multiple log-ins through different ISP providers, including information accessed from the Ocean County Library and the Hess School Complex in Mays Landing. Logins from Philadelphia during the time period Williams was there in the hospital occurred on the same dates Williams’ email was accessed in New Jersey.

  In a note to then Little Egg Harbor Police Chief Richard Buzby. McCooley shared her concerns and included the results of the internal audit. She supplemented the findings, noting that Williams was in the hospital during the suspicious login periods. McCooley also noted that Williams’ wife works at the Little Egg Harbor branch of the Ocean County Library.

  Further investigation revealed someone used Williams’ email log-in to download several confidential documents. These included resumes, resignation letters, student data and records, Harassment, Intimidation & Bullying (HIB) reports, staff records, lawsuits and the board directory.

  “Although not considered criminal, this was an ethical violation,” said McCooley. “My personal rights and privacy were also violated.”

  McCooley sent an email to Williams with a copy to Daleo, who was then the school board’s vice president. She wanted the former board president to explain how there were multiple log-ins in different areas on the same day.

  “At this time, none of us knew the severity of his illness,” said Daleo. “He (Williams) never asked for me to step in as vice president and take over while he was incapacitated. That’s how our board functions, just like we have in government.”

  Williams never came in to meet with the superintendent and Daleo. He initially replied to the superintendent’s email indicating that he planned to schedule a meeting, although his schedule was very tight.

  Instead, Williams resigned from the school board in June, citing health reasons. In an article published by the Pine Barrens Tribune, Williams revealed he received a COVID-related lung transplant.

  “As elected officials, we are charged with oversight,” said Daleo at the October school board meeting. “.. We should never give our password or permission to somebody else to access email, as it opens up all other types of documentation that a non-elected official should not see.”

  Williams will not face school board ethic charges as he is no longer a member of the school board. He served on the Pinelands Regional School District’s Bass River Township’s representative for 21 years.

  The Pinelands Regional School District board is in the process of adopting a new policy that clarifies expectations of board members. Entitled Board Member Confidentiality Agreement, Policy 0142.2 reiterates the need to keep all electronically accessed information within the purview of the seated Board of Education members and to keep passwords confidential.

  Williams did not return a phone call for this story.