Pasco school resource officers will no longer access student data

The Sheriff’s Office and School Board amended their agreement that previously allowed school resource officers to access grades, discipline and more
Pasco County School Resource Officers will no longer have access to student data like grades and discipline after an agreement with the school board was updated Tuesday
Pasco County School Resource Officers will no longer have access to student data like grades and discipline after an agreement with the school board was updated Tuesday
Published May 4, 2021|Updated May 4, 2021

Pasco County’s school resource officers will no longer have access to student data, including children’s grades and discipline histories, after the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and School Board revised their data-sharing agreement Tuesday.

The officers will also no longer have access to the school district’s early warning system, which designates students as on-track, off-track or at-risk, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

The changes come after the Tampa Bay Times reported that the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office used the information to create a secret list of children who could “fall into a life of crime,” according to an internal manual.

Kids could be added based on factors like whether they had gotten a D or an F in school or been the victim of abuse. More than 400 were on the list last year.

Last month, at the urging of a congressman, the Department of Education opened an investigation into whether the school district violated federal law by sharing personal information without consent.

On Tuesday, Sheriff Chris Nocco released a statement saying his agency was “voluntarily making this update to (its) agreement with the Pasco County School Board to ease any anxiety that parents may have as a result of misinformation perpetuated by media reports.”

“To be clear, over the 20 years that our (school resource officers) have had access to this information, we have never relied on grades, attendance or school discipline to deem any child at-risk for being a future criminal,’ nor do we use predictive policing, and this update to policy just further clarifies and reflects that reality,” he said.

But internal documents, published online by the Times last year, describe 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. The documents also included a rubric that grouped kids into categories based on factors including school grades, attendance and discipline.

School Board members did not make any comments on the change before approving it.

Superintendent Kurt Browning said after the meeting that he sought to amend the agreement because the issue had become a “distraction” to the school district’s efforts to serve children.

”We just determined that we can still provide the same level of service,” he said. “People did not understand that we were not doing anything nefarious with data.”

Under the revised agreement, a Sheriff’s Office analyst who serves on the school system’s threat-assessment team will still be able to review student data, and the agency will be able to use it in cases of public safety emergencies like child abductions. But the Sheriff’s Office will create a record of any data it accesses and why it was necessary and then send it to the school district, according to spokeswoman Amanda Hunter.

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U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott, who heads the House Committee on Education and Labor and called for the federal investigation into the program, said he was “relieved” that the Pasco School Board preemptively changed its policies. But he urged the education department to continue its review “to determine what happened and the impact of the policy on students of color, students with disabilities, and other vulnerable youth.”

“It is important that the school district and others learn from this experience,” he said.

Some advocates said the changes in Pasco did not go far enough.

Among them: a group of 30 national and state organizations known as the PASCO Coalition — People Against the Surveillance of Children and Overpolicing. Members include the Southern Poverty Law Center, the national NAACP and its Pasco County chapter, and the nonprofit civil rights organization Color of Change.

“The PASCO Coalition is extremely concerned about the continued lack of transparency, community-driven solutions, and public input around this program,” the group said in a statement. “Neither the District nor the Sheriff has addressed what the Sheriff is doing with the 20 years of student records in its possession.”

Earlier Tuesday, the coalition sent a 12-page letter demanding that the Pasco County school district end its data-sharing relationship with the Sheriff’s Office.

“When you create a structure to criminalize children, because of the trauma they’ve suffered or the help they may need, you are creating the reverse incentive of what we hope children will do, which is reach out to adults who should be nurturing or caring for them,” said Bacardi Jackson, a managing attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, in an interview with the Times.

Jackson said that makes schools more dangerous — and that the information being considered has not shown a clear path to “future criminality” in students.

“Even beyond the legality and the illegality of this program, is the complete illogical nature of it,” she said.

The Sheriff’s Office had previously pointed to the recommendations of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission, established after the 2018 mass shooting at a Parkland high school, and said it used the data to ensure red flags weren’t missed. But the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protections still need to be in place, regardless of what the commission recommends, said Evian White De Leon, senior staff attorney at Southern Poverty Law Center.

“It’s very limited in what it can ask for and what folks can access,” White De Leon said. “What is happening in Pasco goes well beyond that scope.”

The coalition also raised concerns that data-driven police practices affect mostly students of color, students with disabilities and those with other vulnerabilities.

“Any disparities that already exist are going to be exacerbated because the sheriff’s program is adding a different layer,” said Yasamin Sharifi, an advocacy and outreach paralegal with Southern Poverty Law Center.

A similar issue arose in Ramsey County, Minnesota in 2018, where officials tried to use records to identify at-risk children, according to the letter. The program ended after community members said it could racially profile children as future criminals.

“While intuitions might suggest that relying on data and technology would diminish the threat of biased decision-making, numerous real-world examples counsel otherwise,” the letter reads.

The coalition is holding a virtual town hall on May 8 at 3 p.m. to discuss its continued concerns.

Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.