Federal investigators to probe Florida school policing plan

(AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File) (Gregory Bull, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. – The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into whether a Florida school district broke federal law when it shared private information about students with the local sheriff’s office.

The Pasco County School District shared information on student grades, discipline and attendance with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, the Tampa Bay Times reported. The agency then used the data to compile a list of students officials believed could “fall into a life of crime," the newspaper reported.

The agency is already facing a federal lawsuit that the intelligence-based policing program violates people’s rights by improperly targeting and harassing them. Sheriff Chris Nocco’ rejects the claims in the lawsuit filed last month in Tampa.

U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott, who leads the House Committee on Education and Labor, called for a review of the program by the Department of Education. He said in a statement that he's “encouraged" the agency is looking into the program, which he called “disturbing."

Scott, a Democrat from Virginia, said evidence shows schools suspend or expel Black and Latino students more frequently than their white peers for similar offenses. “Therefore, any law enforcement system that uses school discipline data to identify children as potential criminals would not only be illegal, but also racially biased.”

The sheriff's office, in a statement, maintained that it takes a list of some 20,000 students flagged by the school district as being “at risk" and narrows it “to approximately 330 students who are considered ‘at-risk' by the school district AND have had law enforcement-related interactions with the Pasco Sheriff’s Office."

In a statement, the school district said it looks forward to answering any questions the federal agency might have, adding that it has “safeguards for the proper use of student information” in its agreement with the sheriff's office.

“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 school district's statement said.

Sheriff's officials have also maintained that the program does not label students as potential criminals. Students are only added to the list if they have committed a crime, the statement said. Also, sheriff's employees can only see whether a student has been flagged by the district’s early warning system — not whether they had been flagged for a specific reason, such as grades or attendance.

The sheriff's office said school employees are involved in selecting which students are added to the list.

“Instead of being a ‘predictive policing' tool that labels students for crimes they have yet to commit, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office instead relies heavily on academic research that indicates that those who experience adverse childhood experiences may be at risk for challenges as they grow older and connects them to resources in our community for outlets and services," the sheriff's statement said.

The program has drawn criticism from some parents and teachers.

A Department of Education statement that it would offer no comments until the investigation has been completed.

“I think we’re all happy to see the Department of Education taking this so seriously,” Linnette Attai, a consultant who helps schools comply with student privacy laws, told the newspaper.

Attai said such investigations are often lengthy. If the department finds the district is not complying with privacy laws, it will work with local officials to resolve the issue.

“They’re not there to be punitive,” Attai said. “They usually work something out with the district,” she said.

Pasco County is just north of Clearwater, Florida, along the Gulf of Mexico coast.