On Friday, the U.S. Department of Education opened an investigation into the data-sharing practices between Florida’s Pasco County sheriff’s office and school district. First uncovered in November 2020 by reporting by the Tampa Bay Times, the Department will be investigating the school district’s partnership with the sheriff’s office, which allowed the sheriff to use student grades, attendance, disciplinary records, and aspects of their home life to identify and target students “at-risk” of criminal activity. FPF applauds the Department’s decision to investigate this concerning partnership. Any school data-sharing partnership must value student privacy and build in community trust and transparency—before the Tampa Bay Times story, parents and students in Pasco County were completely unaware of the sheriff’s practices.
In December 2020, FPF analyzed the sheriff’s public documentation and contract with the school board, concluding that the sheriff’s office unlawfully accessed and used student records for their database in violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, FERPA, as well as their contract with the school board. Amelia Vance, FPF’s Director of Youth and Education Privacy, was quoted in the original Tampa Bay Times article revealing the program, noting that:
“The law does say school resource officers can access education records because they can be considered ‘school officials.’ But under most circumstances, they can’t share the records with the rest of the department. And they can’t use them in a law enforcement investigation without permission from a parent, unless there is a court order or a health and safety emergency.”
The Department’s announcement follows significant public outcry. Unfortunately, the Department has refused to share the letter during the early stages of its investigation. In January, Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA), Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, called on the Department to investigate the program for FERPA violations. In his letter Rep. Scott decried the program, noting “this use of student records goes against the letter and spirit of FERPA and risks subjecting students, especially Black and Latino students, to excessive law enforcement interactions and stigmatization.”