Congressman urges probe of Pasco school data program

Denouncing the program as promoting “racial bias” and further feeding the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a U.S. congressman Tuesday called for a federal investigation into the Pasco school district’s practice of sharing student data with law enforcement.

“This use of student records goes against the letter and the spirit of (the federal student privacy law) and risks subjecting students, especially Black and Latino students, to excessive law enforcement interactions and stigmatization,” said U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott, a Virginia Democrat and the chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, in a letter to the acting federal education secretary.

“Further, instead of helping at risk students, pre-criminal categorization merely makes more concrete the schools-to-prison pipeline that is a result of institutional bias,” he added.

Scott’s scathing three-page letter heavily referenced an investigative series in the Tampa Bay Times that found the district had shared data on grades, attendance and student discipline with the Pasco Sheriff’s Office.

The Sheriff’s Office then used the information to make a list of schoolchildren who might “fall into a life of crime.”

The Times found the program had played out largely in secret. Neither students nor their parents are told about the designation. And when first asked about the program by a reporter, schools Superintendent Kurt Browning said he was unaware school-district data was being used that way.

More than 400 kids were on the list late last year, the Sheriff’s Office said.

A statement from the school district late Tuesday said officials looked forward to hearing from the U.S. Department of Education.

“Their knowledge of our agreements with the Sheriff’s Office appears to be based on recent news stories, which do not provide a full picture,” the statement said. “Those agreements include safeguards for the proper use of student information and are designed to provide supports to students who are at risk.”

School board member Cynthia Armstrong declined to comment. The other four board members did not return reporters’ calls.

Separately, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that it continues to stand by the program and that the initiative had been “categorically misrepresented by the Tampa Bay Times.”

“The At-Risk Youth program, which follows recommendations and requirements made as part of Florida’s response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas tragedy, is an important part of keeping children safe,” it said, referencing the 2018 shooting at a Parkland high school that left 17 dead. “Importantly, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission identified silos and the lack of information sharing as key components that led to this tragedy.”

The federal education department declined to comment Tuesday, the last day of President Donald Trump’s administration.

In addition to grades and school attendance records, the Sheriff’s Office uses child-welfare histories from the state Department of Children and Families to determine which kids are likely to become criminals. Under the program, any child who gets a D or an F grade or has been the victim of child abuse could be subjected to scrutiny by law enforcement.

The agency has said it uses the list to provide mentoring and resources to at-risk kids.

But national experts have questioned the justification for mining students’ confidential records. And groups including the Brennan Center for Justice and the Future of Privacy Forum have raised legal and ethical concerns about the initiative.

Separately, the Pasco County Council PTA has called on the school district to review its data-sharing agreements, and tens of thousands of people have signed a petition urging Browning to end the program outright.

Scott echoed many of the same concerns in his letter, saying the program in Pasco raised “serious questions about the ethics of law enforcement agencies identifying law-abiding children for enhanced policing.”

“Of additional concern is the racial bias that necessarily feeds this or any similar system,” he added, noting that any law enforcement system that used school discipline data to identify kids as potential criminals was not only illegal, but unfair.

Scott also referenced the Times’ reporting on a separate Pasco intelligence program that uses people’s criminal histories and social networks to predict whether they will break the law in the future.

The Times found that the agency had monitored and harassed individuals it believed were likely to be future offenders. At least 1 in 10 were younger than 18.

“These abuses highlight the real dangers of this form of policing, especially as applied to students,” the congressman wrote.

In addition to requesting an investigation into the Pasco program, Scott asked the education department to “take steps to ensure that all school districts are appropriately managing student information.”

Full statement from the Pasco Sheriff’s Office:

The Pasco Sheriff’s Office continues to stand by this program, which has been categorically misrepresented by the Tampa Bay Times despite voluminous responses detailing the Intelligence-Led Policing philosophy, which is utilized across the Tampa Bay Area by numerous law enforcement agencies, and how it works and functions within our agency.

Specifically, the At-Risk Youth program, which follows recommendations and requirements made as part of Florida’s response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas tragedy, is an important part of keeping children safe. Importantly, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission identified silos and the lack of information sharing as key components that led to this tragedy.

This At-Risk Youth program breaks down silos. If the Tampa Bay Times has any concerns about this program, they should also share their concerns regarding the recommendations made by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission.

None of the information received by the Sheriff’s Office is based on race, gender or any other demographic information.

The Pasco Sheriff’s Office reiterates our invitation for any individual or group who wishes to learn more about the At-Risk Youth program, and how it differs vastly from the Pasco Schools’ Early Warning program, to contact the Pasco Sheriff’s Office for the factual information on this program instead of relying on inaccurate and salacious reporting.

As such, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office has reached out to Congressman Scott’s staff to provide factual information on this program but has yet to hear back.

[This story was originally published by Tampa Bay Times.]