Privacy & Security

Civil Rights Groups Sound Alarm Over Florida School-Safety Database

By Benjamin Herold — July 09, 2019 3 min read
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A new state database intended to prevent school shootings represents a “massive surveillance effort” that should be immediately halted, a coalition of nearly three dozen advocacy organizations told Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a letter delivered Tuesday.

“We are deeply concerned that the program will be used to label students as threats based on data that has no documented link to violent behavior,” wrote the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Association of People with Disabilities, and more than 30 other groups.

“We believe this database represents a significant safety risk.”

Creation of the “centralized integrated data repository” involving state agencies responsible for education, law enforcement, and social services was mandated by Florida lawmakers following the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018. The state department of education was also required to contract with a company to monitor social media sites for potential threats. The idea was to merge people’s social media posts with millions of records held by school districts and the state government, all in the hopes of catching warning signs that might help officials recognize potential school shooters before tragedy strikes.

The Florida Department of Education missed a deadline of last December 1 to launch the new services, prompting the ire of Gov. DeSantis. Earlier this year, he ordered that both tools be operational by Aug. 1.

In a statement released Tuesday evening, a spokesman in the Governor’s Press Office stood by the state’s plan.

“Ensuring the safety and security of our students will always be our primary concern,” the statement reads. “Access to timely, more accurate information allows law enforcement to respond and intercept possible threats within our schools.”

The letter from advocacy groups contained “fundamentally inaccurate information regarding the database and how the information is used,” the spokesman said.

Less than three weeks before the repository is supposed to be operational, however, details remain scant about what information will be included in the database and what safeguards will be enacted to protect Floridians’ privacy and civil liberties.

In May, Education Week reported on documents obtained through public-records requests showing that the state’s education, law-enforcement, and social-service agencies had discussed the possibility of sharing a wide range of information into the new database. Among the data discussed: records for over 9 million people placed in foster care, information related to unverified tips and suspicious activity reports held by law enforcement, and data on students identified as victims of bullying based on their protected status.

Those documents represented the results of preliminary research conducted by the state agencies, and not all the data elements discussed will likely be included in the final database. But neither the Governor’s office nor the state education department have responded to multiple requests for a current listing of the data elements the soon-to-launch database will include.

The May Education Week story prompted alarm from a diverse array of advocacy groups, who cited the reporting in their letter to Gov. DeSantis.

The repository would “collect highly sensitive information without a clear, evidence-based rationale for inclusion, could be used to stigmatize and blame children who have been victims of bullying or whose only “risk” factor is their disability, and will create a de facto state repository designed to track children based on federally protected characteristics,” according to the groups’ letter.

They also expressed concern that students and families will be deterred from seeking services inside schools, for fear of being labeled a threat instead of receiving help.

Gov. DeSantis should halt construction of the database and establish a commission to review the plans and “identify the legal, ethical, privacy, and security parameters” necessary to mitigate its potential harms, they argued.

Barring that, they said, the governor should at least order the release of protocols and information that might assure parents and the public that they will be protected after the database is operational.

This story has been updated with a statement and additional information from the office of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.