Let’s start with a commonsense premise: Parents should have some control over who gets to see their kids’ school grades, attendance records and other education-related information. School districts shouldn’t turn over that information to just anyone. And that includes law enforcement agencies who want to mine the data for children they think could “fall into a life of crime.” Which is why Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is on the right track with legislation that would require written consent from parents before releasing grades to law enforcement.
The move comes four months after the Tampa Bay Times revealed that the Pasco County school district shares sensitive student data including grades and discipline histories with the Pasco Sheriff’s Office, which notifies neither the students nor their parents. The Sheriff’s Office uses the information to create a secret list of children it thinks could become future criminals. The agency considers factors including whether students have received a D or an F on a report card or missed school three or more times in one quarter, an internal intelligence manual shows.
The effort was part of a larger intelligence program in which the Sheriff’s Office uses a separate algorithm to determine which residents — children and adults — might break the law. The Times found that the deputies use the information to monitor and harass people. Deputies visited one 15-year-old boy’s home 21 times in five months, even though they acknowledged more than once that he wasn’t getting into trouble anymore. They even showed up at the car dealer where his mother worked. “Make their lives miserable until they move or sue,” was how one former deputy described the overall surveillance program.
Brandes, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said parents were “up in arms” about the program. As they should be. The Pasco initiative is an egregious breach of privacy and a reminder of what can happen when law enforcement overreaches. Sheriff Chris Nocco had indicated that he wanted to make proactive strategies and intelligence gathering his agency’s central philosophy. We are all for preventing crime, but not with Orwellian tactics that send the message that some students who have only committed minor infractions are worth throwing away, that they will amount to nothing more than criminals. The Pasco school district should never have gone along with the sheriff’s initiative, at least not without making a forceful and public fuss. The district is already paying the price for its terrible decision — a national philanthropic organization recently pulled its grants to the Pasco school district citing concerns over the information gathering initiative.
Brandes said parents should have to affirmatively consent to having their child’s school grades used in such a fashion. He recommended adding the language to Senate Bill 582, which would create a new chapter of Florida law called the “Parents’ Bill of Rights.”
Doing the right thing is often a little harder — at least politically — when a popular sheriff from your own political party is at the center of the controversy. Brandes could have easily side-stepped the issue, and spent his time championing the many other bills that he supports during the current legislative session. Instead, he took on an important issue, but one that could leave him with a political scar. The proposed legislation won’t end the Pasco Sheriff Office’s larger surveillance program, but it will give back control of sensitive student information to parents. The simple and much-needed change deserves widespread support.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.