Activists demand changes to Pasco school data program

A coalition wants the school district to stop giving student data to the Sheriff’s Office when not required by law.
Members of the PASCO Coalition rallied outside the Pasco School Board meeting on Tuesday, demanding the district end its practice of sharing student data with the Sheriff's Office.
Members of the PASCO Coalition rallied outside the Pasco School Board meeting on Tuesday, demanding the district end its practice of sharing student data with the Sheriff's Office. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 18, 2021|Updated Aug. 18, 2021

Before the Pasco County School Board meeting Tuesday, about a dozen activists waved signs along Land O’Lakes Boulevard.

“Keep kids safe #PascoFiasco,” one sign said.

“Law enforcement does not have a legal right to your child’s school records,” said another. “Stop the share now!”

A car drove past, honking while a passenger shouted in support.

The demonstrators were part of a coalition of national, state and local organizations that gathered to protest the district’s practice of sharing student information with the Pasco Sheriff’s Office.

The Sheriff’s Office has used the data to compile a secret list of children it labeled potential future criminals, the Tampa Bay Times reported last year. Among the criteria for being added to the list: failing a class or being an abuse survivor.

More than 400 students were on the list in November 2020.

In April, the U.S. Department of Education opened an investigation into the program to determine whether it violated federal privacy laws. The following month, school officials announced changes to the program.

Under the new rules, school resource officers no longer have access to student data or the district’s early warning system, used to categorize students as on-track, off-track or at-risk.

A Sheriff’s Office analyst can still access the information and use it in emergencies such as child abductions, according to the new agreement. However, the Sheriff’s Office must create a record each time the data is accessed and send a report to the school district.

The PASCO Coalition, which stands for People Against the Surveillance of Children and Overpolicing and formed last spring, says the changes don’t go far enough. The statewide NAACP, as well as the Pasco County NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Florida Social Justice in Schools Project are all members.

On Tuesday, the coalition demanded that the school system stop voluntarily sharing student records without parental consent when not required by law. The coalition also called on the School Board to notify parents if their children’s records were shared with the sheriff and stop negotiating data-sharing agreements with law enforcement in secret.

Alexandra Khalel was among those who attended the rally.

“I was shocked,” she said. “I just didn’t understand how they could keep track or tabs on some kids without telling anyone how to get on or off the list.”

Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Chase Daniels declined to comment on Tuesday’s rally. He pointed to a joint statement that Sheriff Chris Nocco and Superintendent Kurt Browning released last May explaining the changes to the program.

“This amended agreement will not in any way compromise the safety and security of students, staff and faculty at Pasco County’s schools,” Nocco said in the statement.

Pasco schools spokesperson Stephen Hegarty said that the coalition members were welcome to attend the School Board meeting “to share their opinions or concerns.”

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Brittany Powell, a Wesley Chapel resident who participated in the rally, said was not surprised when she first heard about the program.

“These are things that are always done in the name of protecting children but without regards to exactly how much harm it’s done,” said Powell, 38, who used to teach high-school English and is now studying policing and education in graduate school.

Beverly Ledbetter, a Dade City resident who has worked in education for 46 years, said she also had concerns.

“Those students need to know that somebody cares about them, not that someone views them as a future, potential criminal,” she said. “And that’s what they’re being labeled.”

The data-sharing program isn’t the only intelligence effort by the Sheriff’s Office.

The Times also found that the agency created separate lists of people it considered likely to break the law based on criminal histories, social networks and other unspecified intelligence. Deputies visited their homes over and over. One former deputy told reporters he had been directed to “make their lives miserable until they move or sue.”

Last month, the Sheriff’s Office confirmed it had launched a new intelligence initiative aimed at people whose criminal histories include drug offenses and violent crimes. The agency has been warning targets they will face enhanced police scrutiny in a letter critics described as “offensive” and “patronizing.”