Feds investigating Pasco schools giving student data to sheriff

The Department of Education will look into whether the school district violated federal law by sharing personal student information without consent.
U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Virginia, called for the U.S. Department of Education to investigate the Pasco school district's data-sharing arrangement with the Sheriff's Office.
U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Virginia, called for the U.S. Department of Education to investigate the Pasco school district's data-sharing arrangement with the Sheriff's Office. [ U.S. House of Representatives ]
Published April 19, 2021|Updated April 19, 2021

The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into whether the Pasco school district broke federal law by sharing private student information with the Pasco Sheriff’s Office.

The Tampa Bay Times reported in November that the school district shared information on student grades, discipline and attendance with the Sheriff’s Office, which used the data to compile a secret list of schoolchildren it believed could “fall into a life of crime.”

The federal education department is now looking into the arrangement, a spokesman said Friday.

The investigation follows calls for a review by U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott, who leads the House Committee on Education and Labor. In a statement, Scott said he was “encouraged” that the education department had accepted his request. He called the Pasco program “disturbing.”

“Evidence shows that schools disproportionately suspend or expel Black and Latino students more frequently than their white peers for similar offenses,” said Scott, a Democrat from Virginia. “Therefore, any law enforcement system that uses school discipline data to identify children as potential criminals would not only be illegal, but also racially biased.”

The school district has objected to the Times’ reporting on the program, saying it was inaccurate while declining to discuss specifics. On Friday, it repeated a statement from January saying it had “safeguards for the proper use of student information” in its agreement with the Sheriff’s Office.

“We look forward to responding to the USDOE and answering any questions they may have,” the statement said. “Their knowledge of our agreements with the Sheriff’s Office appears to be based on recent news stories, which do not provide a full picture.”

The Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that it was “proud of our partnership with Pasco County Schools and the work our members do to ensure safety to students, staff and families in our community.”

It repeated previous contentions that the program does not label kids as potential criminals, despite what its own manual says.

The law enforcement agency said that deputies, who serve in the role as school resource officers, do have access to student grades. But the agency said for the first time that students were being added to any list for review only if they had committed a crime. Aside from its school resource deputies, the agency said that Sheriff’s Office employees can see whether a student has been flagged by the district’s early warning system — not whether they had been flagged for a specific reason, such as grades or attendance. It also described school employees as involved in selecting which students are added to the list.

One of the major points of controversy with the partnership has been the fact that the Sheriff’s Office playbook used information on school grades and abuse histories to determine if children might become criminals.

The program’s details were outlined in internal documents, published online by the Times last year, that described how the program operated. A Sheriff’s Office manual described the list as designed to identify “at-risk youth who are destined to a life of crime” and used similar language in at least four other locations.

It included a rubric that put kids in categories based on specific details from the early warning system. For example, it said that students could be labeled “at-risk” if the district reported they had gotten a D in a class, and that they would go into a more serious category — “off-track” — if they had gotten an F.

Emails obtained by the Times show the Sheriff’s Office has been quietly changing the messaging around the program after reporters started asking about it last year. A policy was drafted to focus on mentoring and building positive relationships with the students.

The program has drawn national attention and received sharp criticism from some parents and teachers.

Weeks after the Times published its report, local parents called on the school district to review its data-sharing agreements, and a petition to end the program garnered tens of thousands of signatures.

In December, a nonprofit organization that focuses on privacy issues published a legal analysis, based on school district and Sheriff’s Office documents, that said the programs violate federal law.

This year, a national charitable organization said the program was “contrary” to its values and cut off more than $1 million in grants to the school district. In addition, state lawmakers proposed requiring school districts obtain written consent from parents before releasing school grades to law enforcement.

“I think we’re all happy to see the Department of Education taking this so seriously,” said Linnette Attai, one of the experts who had criticized the program and a consultant who helps schools comply with student privacy laws.

In its statement, the Department of Education said it would not comment further on the investigation until it had been resolved.

The department’s investigations are typically lengthy, Attai said. The federal agency will first issue a notice to the school district and then begin requesting documents and other materials to review.

If the department finds the school district out of compliance with privacy law, it will work with local officials to solve the issue.

“They’re not there to be punitive,” Attai said. “They usually work something out with the district,” she added.

The full statement from the U.S. Department of Education’s Student Privacy Policy Office:

The U.S. Department of Education’s Student Privacy Policy Office has opened an investigation into the alleged violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 by Pasco County Schools regarding the potential non-consensual disclosure of personally identifiable information from student education records to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office. To protect the integrity of our investigation, we will not provide any details about the investigation and will not respond to further inquiries until the investigation is concluded, unless we are required by law to do so.

Pasco school district comment:

We look forward to responding to the USDOE and answering any questions they may have. Their knowledge of our agreements with the Sheriff’s Office appears to be based on recent news stories, which do not provide a full picture. Those agreements include safeguards for the proper use of student information and are designed to provide supports to students who are at risk. Our longstanding relationship with the Sheriff’s Office has always been based on a shared goal of keeping our campuses safe and seeking positive outcomes for students.

Pasco Sheriff’s Office comment:

We have no additional comment beyond what was previously provided to the Tampa Bay Times. However, we’re proud of our partnership with Pasco County Schools and the work our members do to ensure safety to students, staff and families in our community. Additionally, I’m providing you with the below, which details much of the misinformation the Times has misconstrued through the course of their reporting and sets the record straight on facts vs slant.

As always, it is our sincere hope that the Times uses this opportunity to set the record straight on their own reporting and the previous fallacies they’ve published.

Far from labeling children as “potential future criminals,” the Pasco Sheriff’s Office has a robust School Resource Officer (SRO) program that engages with school children to bridge the gap between community and law enforcement, while focusing on keeping our children, young adults, faculty and staff safe at school.

To this end, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office follows the recommendations of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission Report wholly, which found that the tragedy at Parkland was caused, in pain art, due to information stored in “silos” and a lack of inter-agency communication. In the case of the tragedy at Parkland, this led to “red flags” being missed and children being put at risk.

The Pasco Sheriff’s Office and Pasco County Schools work tirelessly to make certain that “red flags” are not missed in Pasco County, and to protect our children, young adults and the community from a possible tragedy. Most of the reporting, it seems, believes this information sharing and silo breaking approach is not appropriate.

The reporting also significantly misstates the information that is shared. For example, the reporting notes that a student could “fall into a life of crime” if “they’ve been abused or gotten a D or an F in school.” To be clear, the only deputies that have access to student grades are our SROs in schools as part of their role with the School Based Threat Assessment Team mandated by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school safety legislation. To be clear, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office DOES NOT use those grades as justification to visit an individual’s residence.

The Pasco Sheriff’s Office is only made aware, through the Pasco County Schools’ Early Warning System (EWS), if a student is considered on track, off track, or at risk. The Pasco Sheriff’s Office does not know why the designation is placed on these students by the schools. It could be for attendance issues, discipline issues, grade issues or any number of other causes, but these reasons are not shared with the Sheriff’s Office.

Again, only the student’s on track, off track or at-risk designation is shared with the Pasco Sheriff’s Office. Far from being secret, as the reporting has chosen to imply, any parent can access the EWS status for his or her children at any time.

What does the Pasco Sheriff’s Office do with the information that a child may be off track or at risk, as determined by the school district? The Pasco Sheriff’s Office takes these approximately 20,000 students and cross references our law enforcement reports to see if those students have had criminally-related interactions with law enforcement.

Of the 20,000 students determined to be “at-risk” by the school district, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office narrows that list to approximately 330 students who are considered “at-risk” by the school district AND have had law enforcement-related interactions with the Pasco Sheriff’s Office, as noted by our law enforcement reports. Again, students must have committed a crime previously and be designated by the school system as “at-risk” to be included on the Pasco Sheriff’s Office list.

Once these students are identified by this cross-referencing, the SRO in each school is afforded the opportunity, through increased awareness and engagement, to establish positive connections with these students. The SRO DOES NOT label these students as “potential future criminals” but instead, works with the student to provide them with positive mentorship and support. The SRO also serves as part of the school-based threat assessment team, which can also refer students to further resources and services in the community.

This team is does not solely consist of the SRO making these decisions, but instead is comprised of multiple school staff members and the SRO, working in tandem to find the most helpful path for the student. In addition, contrary to what the reporting has chosen to convey, parents are involved when students are referred to services through the school-based threat assessment team.

Instead of being a “predictive policing” tool that labels students for crimes they have yet to commit, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office instead relies heavily on academic research that indicates that those who experience adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) may be at risk for challenges as they grow older and connects them to resources in our community for outlets and services.

Once again, to suggest that this is predictive policing is inaccurate. Instead of arresting students for crimes they have yet to commit, we partner with the students who have shown a pattern of crime, the schools who have alerted us that this student is experiencing issues at school, and the parents of the student, if they choose to take part, to wrap resources around the student to make certain they have the opportunity to succeed.

In addition, this program is far from secretive and was not in any way “exposed” by the reporting. Both the at-risk youth program and the prolific offender program have been discussed at length in numerous public meetings over the last decade. Furthermore, the at-risk youth program is specifically part of signed contracts that are public between the Pasco Sheriff’s Office and the school district. In fact, we are proud of our partnership and continuous efforts to keep children and the community safe. We are also happy to discuss the basis, structure and implementation of the programs with any objective audiences and stakeholders.

We are committed to keeping our community safe, and these programs achieve those goals WITHOUT labeling children in any way and WITHOUT engaging in predictive policing.