It’s about time Pasco schools and the sheriff ended surveillance program | Editorial
Intelligence-gathering on students isn’t mentoring.
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco, shown here, and the Pasco County School Board reversed course Tuesday on a controversial data-sharing agreement involving students.
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco, shown here, and the Pasco County School Board reversed course Tuesday on a controversial data-sharing agreement involving students.
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published May 6, 2021

It took months of bad press, community effort and outside pressure. But the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and School Board finally came to the right decision by ending a program that gave the Sheriff’s Office access to private student information.

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,” according to the agency’s internal intelligence manual. Kids could be added based on factors like whether they received a D or an F in school, or whether they were the victim of abuse. The process largely played out in secret; the Sheriff’s Office didn’t tell the children or parents about the designation. More than 400 kids were on the list last year.

Experts in law enforcement and student privacy questioned the justification for combing through thousands of students’ education and child-welfare records, calling the program highly unusual and a misuse of children’s confidential information. While both the Sheriff’s Office and the school district defended the program, and criticized the Times’ reporting, the two agencies announced a revised data-sharing agreement Tuesday.

With the change, Pasco County’s school resource officers will no longer have access to student data, including children’s grades and discipline histories. Nor will they have access to the school district’s early warning system, which designates students as on-track, off-track or at-risk. In a statement Tuesday, Sheriff Chris Nocco said 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.” School Superintendent Kurt Browning said he sought to amend the agreement because the issue had become a “distraction.”

It’s too bad the sheriff blamed the media, while the district downplayed the controversy, instead of both acknowledging that the arrangement was wrongheaded, unaccountable and ripe for abuse, especially against students of color and those with disabilities. 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.” The documents also included a rubric that grouped kids into categories based on factors including school grades, attendance and discipline. This was not a media invention or a minor matter, but a substantive example of governmental overreach that only risked further alienating troubled children.

The outcry by parents and activists shows the good that can come from sustained public involvement. Some civil rights advocates complain, however, the revised agreement falls short, pointing to a provision that narrowly provides access to some student data, and questioning “what the sheriff is doing with the 20 years of student records in its possession.”

That’s a matter for the U.S. Department of Education, which opened an investigation last month into whether the arrangement violated federal law by allowing “the potential non-consensual disclosure of personally identifiable information.” The department’s inquiry will provide a valuable, third-party perspective of what ensued in Pasco, hopefully giving parents and voters there a fuller picture from an outside arbiter of what their local officials were doing with the information.

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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.