The federal government is looking into whether a Florida school district violated privacy law by sharing student data with the county sheriff’s department.
An investigation by the Tampa Bay Times found that the Pasco County School District shared grades, disciplinary records and attendance with the Sheriff’s Office, which used the data to create a list of potential future criminals. And Monday, a group of local, state and national organizations are forming a coalition to ask the school district to stop sharing confidential information with the Sheriff’s Office, saying it leads to harassment and surveillance of Black students.
I spoke with Amelia Vance, who is with the nonprofit Future of Privacy Forum, which is part of that coalition. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation, followed by a statement from the Pasco County School District.
Amelia Vance: One of the things that I was really thankful that Congressman Bobby Scott [D-Va.]pointed out in his letter to the Department of Education, urging them to investigate this matter, was that this data sharing risks subjecting students, especially Black and Latino students, to excessive law enforcement interactions and stigmatization.
Molly Wood: The pipeline to prison, basically?
Wood: Tell us about the idea behind this, the predictive-policing concept, which is basically that if you have enough data, you can determine what is likely to happen to a child as they get older. I mean, it seems like there could be some flaws in that already.
Vance: Especially because the research that’s listed in the Pasco County sheriff’s manual includes risk factors such as antisocial parents and siblings, socioeconomically deprived. This is a series of risk factors that could apply to a number of students that are never going to commit a crime. To take all of those students, label them at-risk and then have that information shared with law enforcement is just a recipe for stigmatization of those students and, as you mentioned, pushing them further towards that school-to-prison pipeline.
Wood: A lot of schools presumably have access to a lot more data after the last year of remote schooling and new software-based tools. Could this overall increase in data collection add to the problem or the temptation of law enforcement to want all of it?
Vance: It could certainly lead to that data feeding into that early-warning system, potentially labeling students at-risk because maybe missing three days of class in a quarter increases the risk level of a student, just a slight amount. And then that list of at-risk students is going to the Sheriff’s Office. And while none of this is contingent on the remote learning that has been occurring, the extra data collection does perhaps enhance the likelihood of a student being labeled at-risk.
Wood: Tell us about the federal law that is supposed to prevent this kind of sharing, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, FERPA.
Vance: So FERPA was passed in 1974, ironically, to help prevent this sort of turning over information to law enforcement without parents and students being aware of it. So you had a survey done prior to the law passing that actually showed that school districts were more likely to turn over information to police, to the FBI, to potential employers, without ever telling parents and students about it. And so this law was passed that said information should not be shared without parental consent or a legal exception applying. And most importantly, parents and students should know when this information is turned over, either through documentation requirements or through proactive notifications, especially when the data is being turned over to law enforcement.
Wood: Do you have a sense of whether this kind of data sharing is happening elsewhere? Because it sounds like you’re saying the law was crafted to prevent what was a pretty common process.
Vance: Yeah, that was definitely what that 1972 survey found. Districts across the country were reporting that students had parents who were part of the civil rights movements, who were potentially involved with, as you can imagine in that time period, communism or other things that scared the American public. It was definitely commonly happening back then. Today, it’s not as clear. This is a clear-cut case where there’s a manual, there’s a data-sharing agreement and there’s the excellent reporting by the [Tampa Bay] Times that says that this is happening in Pasco County. I think the big question is you have school districts all over the country that have similar programs to Pasco, an early-warning system, which is meant to prevent students from dropping out of high school, meant to identify when kids need interventions from teachers or school counselors, and get them back on track. Whether that’s helping them get up to grade level in their reading or math, whether that’s identifying maybe that their parents are going through a divorce and they need extra support, identifying whether they need breakfast or lunch because they’re not getting that at home or they’re part of the foster care system. That information is so sensitive, though, that it should never be going to law enforcement.
Wood: How does the law play into this? Do you feel like this is a broad misunderstanding of FERPA — school districts don’t know enough about it, or are they just sort of ignoring it because the transfer is so easy and the cops were asking?
Vance: I think it’s a mix of both. There’s been a real understandable reluctance from school districts to turn away law enforcement when they asked for student data, even though very clearly under FERPA, it is generally not allowed and especially not allowed without usually a subpoena or court order. But schools worry that this means that schools will not be safe, that they may miss a threat. Even though, if we look at the history of school shootings — overwhelmingly, there were plenty of signals, plenty of law enforcement entities who knew about troubled students, and it just wasn’t shared among law enforcement agencies, it wasn’t shared more broadly. So I think it’s really a mistaken impression and does lead school districts to lean towards sharing more information with law enforcement than they’re supposed to.
The Pasco County School District provided the following statement:
“Pasco County Schools and the Pasco Sheriff’s Office have a strong longstanding partnership. Our School Resource Officer (SRO) program dates back almost thirty years and our School Safety Guard (SSG) program was successfully implemented three years ago. These programs have enhanced safety for students and staff. We worked closely with the Sheriff’s Office before the Marjory Stoneman Douglas tragedy and then took the lessons learned from this tragedy to further enhance safety in our schools. One of the findings of the Commission that examined the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was that agencies failed to communicate with each other and failed to share information.
Our data sharing and collaboration takes many forms. Our school district works with the Sheriff’s Office to recruit and train School Safety Guards. We continue to refine our crisis planning and to implement law enforcement participation in our threat assessment teams as required by legislation following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shootings.
A great deal of what has been written has focused on one aspect of this data sharing agreement, and that is the law enforcement piece. Our information sharing is a two-way street. What has not been talked about are the many instances where we have been made aware of a situation involving one of our students because of something tragic happening in their life. This involvement allows the school district’s staff to provide additional supports to the student and/or the student’s family. Countless times our relationship with the Sheriff’s Office has benefitted our students, because the Sheriff’s Office often knows of things that we do not.
We strive to strike the right balance with mutual information sharing as we make every effort to meet our top priority – keeping students safe. Our grant with the US Department of Justice actually requires data sharing between the two agencies. Our agreements with the Sheriff’s Office are frequently reviewed and, when appropriate, revised or updated. We look forward to responding to the inquiries from the US Department of Education, and we will continue our ongoing dialogue with the Sheriff’s Department so that our students continue to fully benefit from their involvement in our schools.”
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