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Pasco PTA: Use of school data to flag potential criminals ‘unacceptable’

Parents and teachers demanded reviews into the Sheriff’s Office program. Some called for it to be canceled.
Pasco Schools superintendent Kurt Browning with Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco at a 2015 press conference.
Pasco Schools superintendent Kurt Browning with Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco at a 2015 press conference. [ Times (2015) ]
Published Dec. 11, 2020
Updated Dec. 11, 2020

Pasco County parents and teachers are calling for changes to a secretive Sheriff’s Office program that uses student data to profile schoolchildren as potential future criminals, with some demanding the practice be stopped entirely.

In a letter to the school district, the Pasco County Council PTA asked for reviews of the program and the district’s data-sharing agreements with the Sheriff’s Office and other agencies.

Separately, a group of teachers is circulating a petition for the sheriff’s database of “at-risk” children to be deleted. The teachers also want the school district to release demographic information on the kids who have been targeted and transfer some of the money that pays for school resource officers to academic and mental health resources.

A petition is circulating online asking Superintendent Kurt Browning to erase the sheriff's database of students.
A petition is circulating online asking Superintendent Kurt Browning to erase the sheriff's database of students. [ Color of Change ]

Two parents also told the Tampa Bay Times they had filed public records requests relating to their children’s possible involvement in the program, only to be rebuffed.

“It is not acceptable,” said Alicia Willis, president of the Pasco County Council PTA. “This will be a process like with anything, but we need to see some changes.”

Danielle Biggs, a teacher at Veterans Elementary School in Wesley Chapel, said the program “goes against all good education practice.”

“I get it,” she said. “They have a responsibility to protect children. But what they are doing is targeting and profiling children.”

The community outcry comes after a November Times investigation revealed the Sheriff’s Office keeps a list of students who it thinks could “fall into a life of crime.”

Students are added based on data points including their grade point average, attendance record and whether they have friends the Sheriff’s Office considers “delinquent.”

The Sheriff’s Office mines the data for students who attend middle and high schools where its deputies work as school resource officers. Neither the children nor their parents are told if they are added to the list. Four hundred and twenty kids were on it as of November, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

[Read: Pasco’s sheriff uses grades and abuse histories to label schoolchildren potential criminals.]

The agency has said it uses the information to identify students who need mentoring and resources. But law enforcement experts told the Times the practice was based on flawed science, student privacy experts said it skirted federal law and civil liberties groups have vowed to take action against it.

[Read: All of our coverage on the Pasco sheriff’s data-driven intelligence program]

Told about the response from parents and teachers, the Sheriff’s Office said: “We will do everything we can to protect the children in our school district and prevent a tragedy from occurring.”

The agency also said that if any funds were taken away from the Sheriff’s Office, it “would make schools notably less safe and also run afoul of regulations required as part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act,” which requires officers or security guards in schools to prevent school shootings.

Pasco County Superintendent of Schools Kurt Browning.
Pasco County Superintendent of Schools Kurt Browning. [ Pasco County School District ]

The school district said it planned to “assure the PTA County Council that our agreements with the Sheriff’s Office are routinely reviewed and, when appropriate, revised or updated.”

But asked directly, it declined to say whether it would act on any of the PTA’s requests, whether it was reviewing the Sheriff’s Office program, or whether Superintendent Kurt Browning had learned anything about the program since he told a reporter he was unaware data was being used this way in September.

School board member Alison Crumbley told the Times she planned to confirm with district officials that data-sharing safeguards exist. Board members Colleen Beaudoin and Megan Harding said the district works closely with the Sheriff’s Office to keep students safe.

Harding added, “I know our PTA has some concerns, but I also look forward to filling them in on the wonderful relationship we have with our Sheriff’s Office.”

Board chairman Allen Altman and vice chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong did not respond to requests for comment.

[Read the responses from elected Pasco school leaders about the sheriff’s program]

Pasco County School Board member Colleen Beaudoin and chairman Allen Altman at a meeting last year.
Pasco County School Board member Colleen Beaudoin and chairman Allen Altman at a meeting last year. [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times Staff ]

Willis, of the county council PTA, said her organization supports the positive relationships school resource officers can have with students. But the details of the Sheriff’s Office data-driven program were “unacceptable and scary,” she said.

“It needs to start being addressed now, in the next week or two,” she said.

Jennifer Martinez, president of the Florida PTA, said her organization “opposes the data mining of educational records or student data for open-ended purposes.”

She added that a team was looking into the Sheriff’s Office program and is ready to help the county council with any of its advocacy efforts.

Other Pasco County parents said they were concerned as well.

“I love police,” said Tammy Ingram, who lives in the county with her three school-aged children. “But I’m kind of hurt about this.”

After reading the Times report, Ingram reached out to the Sheriff’s Office, hoping to find out if her older children were on the list. She was told the records were confidential and could not be released to her, according to a copy of the response reviewed by the Times.

The response both surprised and angered her, she said. “These should be public records to the parents. We should know.”

The Sheriff’s Office said about five parents had asked for the records and that it provided them when the parents verified their identities. But Ingram wasn’t asked for verification, she said, even after saying she was her children’s mother twice.

Another parent told the Times he had been unable to obtain any records showing whether his child was on the sheriff’s list or how the determination was made.

Barbara Petersen, an expert on Florida’s public records law and president emeritus of the state’s First Amendment Foundation, said parents should have access to their own children’s records.

“If I were a parent, I’d be outraged,” Petersen said. “I’d be suing the sheriff. That the sheriff is not giving information on their child, it is morally reprehensible.”

Meanwhile, more than a dozen Pasco teachers and school support staff have taken their own public stand against the program.

Several of the group’s members who spoke to the Times work at Veterans Elementary. And even though the Sheriff’s Office does not mine data from elementary schools, they say they were still disturbed such an effort is taking place in the district.

“We don’t see anything good coming out of it,” said Jordan Vaca, an exceptional student education teacher.

“What’s frustrating is that the leaders in the school district don’t seem to have a problem with this,” teacher Johora Warren added. “They just trust the Sheriff’s Office.”

Some of the teachers said they would have met several of the department’s criteria for being labeled a potential future criminal. Vaca said he sometimes had below average grades in school, problems with attendance and traumatic experiences in his childhood.

“It made me think,” he said. “If I was in school now, would I be on this list?”

In an online call to action, the group wrote the program is built on data biased against children of color and that millions of dollars are given to the Sheriff’s Office annually, while resources for mental health and education are cut.

“I’m bitter because we are paying $2.3 million to the Sheriff’s Office to do this while my caseload was doubled,” said Caitlin Al-Mutawa, a speech-language pathologist who helps children with communication disorders.

The group worked with the national civil rights advocacy organization, Color of Change, to create an online petition to demand Browning delete the Sheriff’s Office database. The petition spread on Twitter and Facebook and was featured in a video on TikTok.

The teachers intend to raise their concerns about the program at the next public school board meeting on Tuesday.

[Read the responses from elected Pasco school leaders about the sheriff’s program]

[Read: The Times coverage of the Pasco sheriff’s data-driven intelligence program]

• • •

The full letter from the Pasco County Council PTA to the school district:

I wanted to reach out to you regarding the article that was published on November 19, 2020 by the Tampa Bay Times. The Pasco County Council of PTAs finds the article regarding use of our student’s educational data and child service’s data alarming. In the article, like our school board members and superintendent, the PCCPTA was unaware of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office manual. The practices condoned and verbiage described does not reflect the community policing advocated for by PCCPTA.

The PTA opposes the wholesale data-mining of educational records or online profiles for unspecified and open-ended purposes. The association recognizes educational agencies and institutions as the nexus between parents seeking access to their child’s data and the service providers that collect the data within a school setting. In managing this relationship, educational agencies should balance parental rights with educationally sound data uses, like personalized and adaptive learning.

For example, we have supported and recognized the importance of the relationship between our SROs and school communities. As highlighted in the article, we support tutoring and mentoring efforts utilizing early warning systems that use student and family data. To our knowledge these efforts are in collaboration with the School District and DCF and have an outcome intended to improve student learning.

The allegations of targeting families justified by utilizing any piece of educational data by former deputies is unacceptable, given law enforcement unit records are not subject to privacy protections. The manual described in the article allows for this alleged practice due to student data-mining in an open-ended purpose.

The PCCPTA requests our DCF offices and our School Board:

· to review their student data agreements and manuals involving use of student data by all agencies with the Sheriff’s Office and to ensure student data is used for educational purposes only and that best practices reflected.

· Investigate the allegations of use of student data to target families using student data for any reason other than positive

· Review policies and practices regarding SROs with the Sheriff’s Office to ensure positive discipline practices.

· Improve communication on how each organization has agreed to use student educational data.

PCCPTA knows that our School Board and Superintendent views every student’s potential to be a productive member of our community, not in terms highlighted in the Sheriff’s Office manual. Now that we know, PCCPTA calls on our School Board and Superintendent to ensure any agency utilizing our student data will improve student learning in their policies and practices.

I’d love an opportunity to discuss this matter with you further and offer any assistance needed to protect Pasco County’s children.

Thank you,

Alicia Willis, President

Pasco County Council PTA

• • •

Can I check if my child is on the list?

It’s unclear. The Sheriff’s Office said it does not inform students or their parents if they’ve been added to its list of potential future criminals.

The Sheriff’s Office declined our request for the list, citing laws protecting the privacy of students, kids in the juvenile justice system and victims of crimes.

But experts said many of those laws don’t apply to parents requesting their own kids’ records, and federal law gives families the right to access student records on their children.

The Sheriff’s Office analyzes the data for more than 30,000 students in most of the middle and high schools in the county. (Pasco Middle School, Pasco High School, Gulf Middle School, Gulf High School and Harry Schwettman Education Center have school resource officers from other law enforcement agencies, so their students’ data is not included.)

The school district said it does not have the list that is created by the Sheriff’s Office. It said it already informs parents when their children are considered at-risk academically.

You can try to make a records request for all records related to your child to the Sheriff’s Office by phone (813-996-6982), fax (813-235-6119), mail (8700 Citizens Drive, New Port Richey, FL 34654) or through its online records portal (pascosheriff.com/records-and-reports.html).

Let us know what happens. Send an email to tips@tampabay.com or reach out directly to reporter Neil Bedi at nbedi@tampabay.com or reporter Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@tampabay.com.