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Pasco superintendent defends sharing data with sheriff, as teachers object

The comments followed a Times investigation that revealed the Sheriff’s Office was using grades to compile a list of kids at-risk of becoming criminals. “People post stuff to the internet,” he said.
Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning defended sharing student information with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office at a School Board meeting on Tuesday.
Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning defended sharing student information with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office at a School Board meeting on Tuesday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Dec. 16, 2020
Updated Dec. 16, 2020

LAND O’ LAKES — Pasco Superintendent Kurt Browning angrily defended the district sharing private student data with the Sheriff’s Office during a Tuesday School Board meeting, after parents and teachers called for changes to a controversial program that uses the data to identify kids who could “fall into a life of crime.”

In his first public comments following a Tampa Bay Times investigation into the sheriff’s use of protected student data, Browning ignored the bulk of the investigation’s findings.

“People post stuff to the internet and people take it as gospel,” he said.

Instead, he called the district’s data-sharing practices “beneficial” to students and said they had helped keep schools safe.

“A great deal of what has been written about the data-sharing arrangement is the law-enforcement piece,” Browning said, referring to the Times’ reporting showing that the Sheriff’s Office uses school records to identify kids who could become future criminals.

“I can’t address the law-enforcement piece,” he said. “What has not been talked about much at all are the many, many instances where we have been made aware of a situation involving one of our students because of something tragic happening in their lives.”

The educational data, he added, is “not the sole determining factor of whether or not there are kids on this list” created by the Sheriff’s Office.

“That is a law-enforcement concern,” he said. “The students that are on that list are students that have prior criminal records or had some other opportunities to have relationships with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.”

According to a copy of the agency’s internal intelligence manual, which was republished by the Times, kids can be added to the list for many reasons, including getting a D on a report card or missing school three or more times in a quarter.

Browning’s remarks were the first time he addressed the program in public since telling a reporter he wasn’t aware district data was being used in that way, before the investigation published.

He spoke shortly after several parents and educators, including a representative from the county council of PTAs, criticized the program and made passionate pleas for the School Board to dig deeper.

Some noted that the program may violate student privacy rights, which are protected by federal law.

“I am here asking for transparency and accountability,” said Caitlin Al-Mutawa, a speech-language pathologist who helps children with communication disorders at Veterans Elementary.

Caitlin Al-Mutawa, of Tampa, a speech-language pathologist with Veteran's Elementary School in Wesley Chapel, speaks during the meeting. Listening, at right, is Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning.
Caitlin Al-Mutawa, of Tampa, a speech-language pathologist with Veteran's Elementary School in Wesley Chapel, speaks during the meeting. Listening, at right, is Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“We demand that demographic data be released because if it comes to light that Black and Brown children are overrepresented on this list, it is evidence that we as a district are in fact failing these children,” she said.

Teacher Danielle Biggs had tears in her eyes during her appeal.

“How can we possibly guarantee that we as a district are giving every child an opportunity to be successful in their college, career and life if we are allowing them to be on such a list and be labeled as a potential future criminal?” she asked.

Danielle Biggs, a teacher at Veteran's Elementary School in Wesley Chapel
Danielle Biggs, a teacher at Veteran's Elementary School in Wesley Chapel [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Pasco County Council PTA President Alicia Willis reiterated her organization’s call for a review of the agreement between the district and the Sheriff’s Office.

Willis also asked for assurances “that the data being provided is not contributing or being a factor in the development of a potential criminal watch list of our students.”

None of the school board members responded from the dais. After the public portion of the meeting ended, they went directly into a closed-door session on student expulsions.

Before the meeting, School Board Chairman Allen Altman told a reporter, “we’ll see what transpires and get the information.”

Said board member Alison Crumbley: “Stay tuned.”

Allen Altman, chairman of the Pasco County School Board
Allen Altman, chairman of the Pasco County School Board [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Earlier in the day, the Sheriff’s Office said in a Facebook post that it had met with the Pasco County Council PTA and the Pasco County NAACP to discuss their concerns about the program.

It characterized the meetings as “positive.”

The department also again defended its program, saying it is intended to provide “positive support through engagement and mentorship to these students.”

“This same type of program, which breaks down silos and allows for information sharing among agencies for the mutual benefit of enhanced safety and security for students, was called for both by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission report and in the recently released Grand Jury report regarding the Parkland tragedy,” the agency wrote. “We cannot overstate that this program is intended to keep children safe.”

But in her remarks to the School Board, Al-Mutawa pointed out that the Sheriff’s Office manual outlining the program was published prior to the 2018 shooting in Parkland.

The Times found that the Sheriff’s Office mines the information for kids in most of Pasco’s middle and high schools.

The agency said it does not tell students or their parents about the designation. In the Tuesday Facebook post, it said about 450 kids are on the list.

Several civil rights organizations, including the Florida ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center, said they were seriously considering filing a lawsuit or launching an advocacy campaign to stop the program.

Separately, some of the teachers who attended the board meeting spoke to Color of Change, a nonprofit civil rights organization, about their concerns in November. The national group created a petition demanding Browning “erase the database.” It had more than 27,200 signatures as of Monday, according to Color of Change.

After Tuesday’s meeting, Willis said she was pleased district leaders had addressed the topic.

But Cliff McAfee, president of the PTSA at Dr. John Long Middle School in Wesley Chapel, told a reporter he believed the program “still needs more transparency.”

The teachers said Browning’s remarks addressed none of their concerns. They called the school district’s efforts to help troubled kids “wonderful,” but said it had not explained why a secret list was necessary.

“Students have a right and parents have a right to know about this,” Biggs said.

Biggs said she hopes board members Colleen Beaudoin and Megan Harding, both educators, will address their concerns.

“We’re not interested in a closed-door process,” Al-Mutawa added. “Our community deserves to know this information.”

This article was updated to clarify the role nonprofit civil rights group Color of Change played in drafting the petition calling for the database’s deletion.

• • •

The superintendent’s prepared statement for the board meeting.

A great deal has been written and, as always, posted to social media regarding the sharing of data between the Pasco Sheriff’s Office and the Pasco School District. And, as is frequently the case, many people read and believe that what they are reading provides a complete picture. In this case, it does not.

Pasco County Schools and the Pasco Sheriff’s Office have a strong longstanding partnership. Our School Resource Officer (SRO) program dates back almost thirty years and our School Safety Guard (SSG) program was successfully implemented three years ago, as one of the first In the State. These programs have enhanced student safety. We worked closely with the Sheriff’s Office before the Marjory Stoneman Douglas tragedy and took the lessons learned from this tragedy to reflect upon and enhance safety in our schools. We work together to recruit and train School Safety Guards, continue to refine our crisis planning, and to implement law enforcement participation in our threat assessment teams as required by legislation following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shootings.

A great deal of what has been written has focused on one aspect of this data sharing agreement, and that is the law enforcement piece. What has not been talked about much at all are the many, many instances where we have been made aware of a situation involving one of our students because of something tragic happening in their life. This involvement allows the school district’s staff to provide additional supports to the student and/or the student’s family. Melissa Musselwhite, our Director of Student Support Programs and Services, has shared numerous accounts of how this relationship with the Sheriff’s Office has benefited our students. Often the Sheriff’s Office is able to assist us in ensuring the students get timely and appropriate assistance.

In closing, we strive to strike the right balance with mutual information sharing as we make every effort to meet our top priority – keeping students safe and addressing their social and emotional needs. Our grant with the US Department of Justice actually requires data sharing between the two agencies. Our agreements with the Sheriff’s Office are frequently reviewed and, when appropriate, revised or updated. We look forward to our ongoing dialogue with the Sheriff’s Office so that our students continue to fully benefit from their involvement in our schools.