When is a victory lap a mistake? When you take it before you’ve actually won. That’s exactly what happened when the Pasco County School Board and the Sheriff’s Office announced this month that they ended their highly controversial surveillance agreement. But instead of ending the program that polices Pasco children, the school board revised the agreement and made a few cosmetic changes, while maintaining the sheriff’s considerable access to private student data.
Last year, the Tampa Bay Times revealed that the Pasco Sheriff’s Office kept a biased and invasive database of students they claimed were “at risk” and “predestined to a life of crime.” But the truth is that these students were never at risk of anything more than being kids: Struggling in school does not make a child a future criminal. Alarmingly, the sheriff’s office used grades provided by the school district and child-welfare records from the state Department of Children and Families to compile a secret list of more than 400 children, creating one of the most disturbing examples of the school-to-prison pipeline anywhere in the country.
We are grateful to the Tampa Bay Times for its reporting on this program; it catalyzed action. The U.S. Department of Education is investigating the school district’s practices. The People Against Surveillance of Children and Overpolicing (“PASCO Coalition”) — a team of more than 30 organizations and 70 individuals representing local, state and national interests — united to ensure that the Pasco Sheriff’s Office’s illegal surveillance of children with the school district’s willing participation stops.
Instead of ending the surveillance agreement, the Pasco County School Board worked with the sheriff to amend it behind closed doors, without a chance for public input. Under the terms of the revised agreement, multiple agencies, including the sheriff’s office itself, still have access to school records of children. The sheriff will rely on “Criminal Intelligence Analysts” — rebranded from “Intelligence-Led Policing Analysts” — to identify and track children. These inadequate “revisions” only last until June 30 — beyond that, there are no guarantees what will be in future contracts between the sheriff and School Board.
And we cannot overlook the fact that job descriptions for school resource officers in Pasco County require them to coordinate with patrol deputies and higher-ups in the sheriff’s office about students and make home visits, putting students and their families at continued risk of harassment and arrest. These sheriff’s office policies fly in the face of the sheriff’s repeated untrue claims that only school resource officers can access student data. And they show that the announcement earlier this month claiming that the data-sharing agreement has ended is a false and misleading distraction from the reality of student profiling occurring in Pasco schools.
Not only does the amended agreement fail to protect students in the future, but it also fails to repair harm to those tracked in the past. The School Board has still not notified the parents of students who were flagged by the police, and the sheriff’s office has 20 years’ worth of those records.
Let’s be clear, this surveillance is an invasion of student privacy; a violation of academic freedom; and a threat to student safety, particularly for Black children and children of color, children with disabilities and poor families. All too often, being flagged as a “threat” in surveillance databases is just the first step to a police officer at your front door — or worse.
Rather than celebrating these meaningless modifications, we invite the community to join the PASCO Coalition in calling on the Pasco County School Board to go further to protect Pasco schoolchildren. All records shared with the sheriff should be erased; the parent of every child whose name appears or has appeared on this secret list should be notified. Finally, there should be a complete ban on information sharing in the future. Only then, once our children are truly safe from these sort of surveillance tools, will it be time to celebrate the win.
Albert Fox Cahn is the executive director of STOP: Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, Inc. and a member of the PASCO Coalition. Nina Borders is the president & CEO of Pasco Pride, Inc. and a member of the PASCO Coalition. For more information on the PASCO Coalition, or to report if you think you, your child, or your family has been targeted, contact the PASCO Coalition at (727) 371-6199 or the PASCOcoalition@gmail.com.