Privacy nonprofit: Pasco sheriff’s use of student data breaks federal law, school district contracts

A legal analysis by the Future of Privacy Forum found legal and ethical issues with the sheriff’s program and the school district’s inaction.
A screenshot of the legal analysis published by the Future of Privacy Forum.
A screenshot of the legal analysis published by the Future of Privacy Forum. [ ]
Published Dec. 19, 2020

A national digital privacy think tank said the Pasco Sheriff’s Office and Pasco County schools must immediately change a program that uses student data to identify potential future criminals to comply with federal law.

“The Sheriff’s Office’s current data practices violate not only its contract with the school board but also the privacy protections required by the federal education privacy law,” the Future of Privacy Forum said in a legal analysis published on Friday.

The organization called for increased transparency, additional training and proactive steps from school administrators to mitigate legal and ethical issues.

Pasco parents, it added, “should feel empowered to file complaints with the U.S. Department of Education.”

“It’s tough because school administrators try to balance their relationship to keep students safe,” said Anisha Reddy, the author of the analysis and a lawyer who tracks state, national and international student privacy legislation.

“But when this involves students and the community and their information being shared, there should be some scrutiny and transparency.”

The review, which examined Sheriff’s Office and school district records, was conducted over several weeks. It was spurred by a Tampa Bay Times investigation that published in November.

The Times found that the Sheriff’s Office keeps a list of “at-risk” students who it believes could commit crimes in the future. Kids are added to the list based on school data and personal information like their grade-point average, attendance or if they experienced abuse at home.

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

Parents and students are not told if they are added to the list. The Sheriff’s Office said 420 children were on the list as of November.

The school district didn’t comment on the new legal analysis and its findings.

The Sheriff’s Office said it “continues to stand by this program that keeps students safe.”

“We again extend the offer for any group to reach out to the Sheriff’s Office for factual information on this program instead of relying on largely inaccurate depictions of this program in media,” the agency added.

The Sheriff’s Office has said that the at-risk youth program is only used to build positive relationships with students in need. But the Future of Privacy Forum analysis said the Sheriff’s Office is sending the opposite message internally, pointing to the agency’s contracts and its internal manual.

The “manual characterizes the students identified as students at risk of becoming ‘prolific offenders’ and ‘destined to a life of crime’ — which communicates a very different message to the officers tasked with enacting the program,” the analysis said.

The analysis also found that the Sheriff’s Office’s descriptions of student-data use appear to “fundamentally misinterpret” and “violate” federal law.

For example, the agency has said it uses attendance records for criminal investigations or to conduct truancy checks. That is illegal without parental consent, according to the analysis.

The analysis also challenges a major defense from the Sheriff’s Office and school district: that data sharing is necessary to prevent another tragedy like the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Schools have been encouraged to share information when a specific threat or emergency has been identified. But because the records used for the at-risk list are continually shared with the Sheriff’s Office, the analysis says “it cannot be credibly argued” that the records are shared only in response to a specific threat.

The Future of Privacy Forum analysis was published amid an outpouring of criticism of the school district’s data sharing practices online.

A screenshot of a Facebook post by Pasco County Schools addressing data sharing with the Pasco Sheriff's Office.
A screenshot of a Facebook post by Pasco County Schools addressing data sharing with the Pasco Sheriff's Office. [ Facebook ]

Late Friday, the school district published a long 712-word post on Facebook to “set the record straight.” In the post, the district defended the data sharing and said it believed some parents had confused two Sheriff’s Office intelligence programs that have been the subject of recent Times reports.

An earlier Times investigation, in September, found that the Sheriff’s Office monitors and harasses people who were identified by an algorithm as most likely to commit crimes in the future based on their criminal histories and social networks. It has ensnared both adults and young people.

That initiative and the program that uses student data are both part of the agency’s intelligence-led policing division and were detailed in an 82-page internal manual obtained by the Times. The Sheriff’s Office has said that inclusion on the at-risk student list does not affect whether a student would be later targeted by the algorithm.

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

In the comments below the Facebook post, some people thanked the school district for its efforts to keep students safe. But far more people were critical of the program.

“It is completely unethical!” one person wrote. “It needs to be stopped along with the PSO’s other lists they have compiled.”

“This is so wrong on so many levels,” wrote another. “You are profiling children and not even telling the parents. How dare you do this without any type of written consent?”

In its report, the Future of Privacy Forum suggests a series of steps to overhaul the program.

First, it called for increased transparency. Parents and students need to be able access their own records and correct any incorrect information, it said.

It was “concerning to see some school administrators weren’t really answering questions,” Reddy said.

The Future of Privacy Forum also suggested the school district leaders establish direct control over their school resource officers and create a community board to participate in data-sharing decisions.

Finally, the group called for robust student privacy training. It said that some data sharing will always exist but federal law has clear protections for students and parents.

School resource officers “must understand and be held accountable for the role they play in protecting student data,” the report said.

The Sheriff’s Office’s full response to the legal analysis:

The Pasco Sheriff’s Office continues to stand by this program that keeps students safe. We again extend the offer for any group to reach out to the Sheriff’s Office for factual information on this program instead of relying on largely inaccurate depictions of this program in media.

To note, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office only receives from the School District’s Early Warning System if a student is off track or at-risk, which does not include grades, attendance or demographic information, and then compares that with law enforcement reports.

To be clear, this at-risk program is in no way predictive policing, but instead focuses on building positive relationships with students to produce positive outcomes, reduce victimization, mental health and substance abuse, and reduce recidivism, if a student has previously committed a crime. This same program has been continually called for in light of the Parkland shooting, including as recently as the Grand Jury report released this month, and is an important part of breaking down silos of information.

In fact, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office has employed an organizational philosophy of Intelligence Led Policing for ten years. Let us again note that this is a philosophy, not a program, that drives what we do as an agency by relying on a data-driven approach, as is common throughout law enforcement, to best allocate resources to keep our community safe.

Far from being “uncovered” in this investigation, we have openly discussed this philosophy with our community over the last decade and we celebrated the successes in crime reduction for a decade, while also celebrating positive outcomes.

Unfortunately, despite being provided this information numerous times, the Times has refused to acknowledge or accept that Intelligence Led Policing is not Predictive Policing nor does it “predict” future criminals. The Times has also conflated several different programs, including the prolific offender program, the at-risk youth program and the School District’s Early Warning System, which has resulted in a factual misunderstanding of these separate and different programs and the ILP philosophy. We again reiterate our offer above to discuss the actual facts of these programs with any group that is interested.

We will not apologize for reducing crime in our community and keeping our children safe. It is unfortunate to see these programs and the continued successes of keeping children safe and reducing crime in our community appear to be advocated against by the Times on behalf of those who are parties to a lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office after they were held accountable for their actions, which the Times praised in a March 2018 editorial as demonstrating “openness” and “keeping the public trust.”

As the Times noted in that editorial, “dishonest deputies taint every investigation they touch.”