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Parents, teachers cry foul over Florida sheriff’s student database

Children, guardians not told if they are on the list

File photo.
File photo. (iStock)

NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. – Some parents and teachers in the Tampa Bay area are asking for changes in a program used by a Florida sheriff to profile students as potential criminals.

The Pasco County Council PTA asked school district officials to review the program and its data sharing agreement with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies, the Tampa Bay Times reported Friday.

In addition, a group of teachers is circulating a petition calling for the sheriff's database of “at-risk" children to be deleted, the newspaper reported. They want the district to release demographic information on the students, and transfer some of the funding that covers school resource officers to academic and mental health resources.

Danielle Biggs, who teaches at Veterans Elementary School in Wesley Chapel, said the program “goes against all good education practice.”

“I get it,” she told the newspaper. “They have a responsibility to protect children. But what they are doing is targeting and profiling children.”

The outcry came after a Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed the sheriff's office keeps a list of students it believes “could fall into a life of crime."

According to the Times, students are added based on data points, including their grade point average, attendance record and whether they have friends the sheriff’s office considers “delinquent.”

Neither the children nor their parents are told if they are on the list, which included 420 names in November, the newspaper reported. The names are added as the agency mines the data for students in middle and high schools where deputies work as resource officers.

The agency has said it uses the data to identify students who need mentoring and other resources, the paper reported.

“We will do everything we can to protect the children in our school district and prevent a tragedy from occurring,” sheriff's officials told the Times, when told of the petitions.

The agency said if funds are taken away, it “would make schools notably less safe and also run afoul of regulations required as part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act,” which requires officers or security guards in schools to prevent school shootings.

The school district said it would “assure the PTA County Council that our agreements with the Sheriff’s Office are routinely reviewed and, when appropriate, revised or updated.”

School board member Megan Harding told the newspaper that the district works closely with law enforcement to keep students safe.

“I know our PTA has some concerns, but I also look forward to filling them in on the wonderful relationship we have with our sheriff’s office,” she said.

Alicia Willis, president of the Pasco County Council PTA, called the details of the sheriff's data-driven program “unacceptable and scary."

“It needs to start being addressed now, in the next week or two,” she said.

On a larger level, Jennifer Martinez, president of the Florida PTA, said her organization “opposes the data mining of educational records or student data for open-ended purposes.”

Likewise, parent Tammy Ingram, said she's upset about the program.

“I love police," she told the Times. “But I’m kind of hurt about this.”

After hearing about the program, she reached out to the agency to see if her three children were on the list. She was told the records were confidential and could not be released to her, the newspaper reported.

The Sheriff’s Office told the newspaper that about five parents had asked for the records, which were provided after the parents provided their identities.

Ingram said she wasn’t asked for verification, even after twice saying she was the children’s mother.

“These should be public records to the parents,” she said. “We should know.”