OPINION: Pasco County schools must protect minors from profiling and privacy violations

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and Pasco County School District need to stop the sharing of any sensitive information and profiling of young students to keep them from internalizing labels put on them by police. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/FLICKR/Mesa0789

The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) started an investigation into the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and the county’s school district April 19 after the sheriff’s office was found tracking students through sensitive information and labeling minors as potential criminals.

In a November 2020 investigation, the Tampa Bay Times uncovered that the sheriff’s office was keeping a database of students it thought could “fall into a life of crime,” according to the office’s internal intelligence manual. 

This practice exploited sensitive information about students and served to target them at a young age. Private policing shouldn’t be a tactic used against minors in school, especially without the knowledge of the parents. Doing so is not only unlawful but could also cause immense damage to a student’s mental health, stamping them with a premature label they could internalize.

After the Tampa Bay Times’ investigation, Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott wrote a letter Jan. 19, urging an investigation from the DOE. Three months later, the investigation has now begun and will determine if the school district violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which protects students’ academic records.

The school district clearly violated FERPA without concern for the students and families involved. Sharing such sensitive information with the sheriff’s office without guardian consent doesn’t provide the protection that schools are meant to give students in their care. Much of the information the office uses as criteria to label youth as “at risk” in the manual could have only been provided by the Pasco County School District.

On four occasions in the manual, the list has been referred to as a tool to identify “at-risk youth who are destined to a life of crime.” The sheriff’s office has no business determining what students will become later in life based on poor grades and absences alone. This wouldn’t have been possible had the school district complied with FERPA.

When the student is labeled as “at risk,” they are put on a list that the sheriff’s office keeps an eye on through their school resource officers (SROs), who are hired by local police to work closely with school administration. As stated in the manual, SROs are expected to not only keep watch of at-risk students when they’re on campus, but also visit them at home to “identify additional risk factors for offending.” 

For instance, if an off-track student is absent from school with no excuse, a local officer is given the authority to visit the child’s home and check on them.

Students being monitored in this manual range from middle school to high school, meaning some of the children could be as young as 11 years old. 

Analyzing young students’ grades and then using their academics to label them as possible criminals can significantly affect the paths students take and how they come to view themselves.

Criminology professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell Larry Siegel believes labeling children as possible criminals can actually create self-fulfilling prophecies. Impressionable kids come to believe the labels others assign to them and begin to act accordingly. With SROs visiting the homes of students labeled as “off track,” it makes it clear what they see the student as.

They become distanced from society as they get older, adopting a self-rejecting attitude. This attitude takes a negative toll on the student’s confidence, self-respect and self-esteem, according to research performed by Siegel. 

In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, the sheriff’s office insisted it doesn’t label kids as potential criminals and that children were only flagged if they’d committed a crime, claiming it had nothing to do with grades or attendance, yet the manual compiled told a different story.

A section of the manual called “Course Performance” refers to grades under a C as “at risk” and an F as “off track.” A third absence constitutes a student as at risk, and absences exceeding five days mark a student as off track. It also tracks statistics like office disciplines, credits and overall GPA.

Public officials in Florida have recognized how inappropriate and disturbing the database and manual are and have taken action in the past months to regulate the sheriff’s office to ensure nothing of this nature can happen again in other counties.

Florida Sen. Audrey Gibson filed SB 808 on Jan. 26 which would regulate how law enforcement agencies use intelligence-led policing. The Florida Senate introduced the bill March 2 and, if passed, it will take effect July 1.

Predictive policing shouldn’t be used against students and especially without the consent and knowledge of their guardians. Floridians can help on an individual level by signing the parent-created petition to take action in deleting the database full of students’ private information. 

Such a breach of privacy is unlawful, and to disguise it as being in the best interest for students and the community is misleading. Rather than share sensitive information and flag the students as possible criminals, schools should give these students assistance in bettering their academics.