School Safety Database Hits Snags Amid Privacy Concerns, Broader Issues

Jul 26, 2019

Some three-dozen groups are asking Governor Ron DeSantis to stop the build of a massive database to track disciplinary and mental health issues. The database is months overdue and was ordered following the Parkland school shooting last year.  

Florida lawmakers want local school districts to keep better tabs on students who could become threats. The database is supposed to combine information from local districts, the Departments of Juvenile Justice, Children and Family Services and even law enforcement. It would be shared with state, law enforcement, and school employees. But an investigation by Education Week found the project is being scaled back amid privacy concerns.

“The legislature, in passing this law, didn’t put many safeguards up as far as what sorts of information will be included in this database, who has access [to it] and how long it will be there," said ACLU of Florida Juvenile Justice Policy Coodinator Michelle Morton. 

The ACLU is one of 33 groups concerned about the type and amount of information that could be collected. The groups say the project is invasive and casts too wide a net when it comes to student information. They argue such tracking could place kids at greater risk of stigmatization and being labeled as a threat. 

EdWeek noted the broader database would include kids who’ve been bullied, those who’ve been treated for substance abuse or have undergone involuntary psychiatric assessments and those in foster care. It would also track their social media activity, issues that could clash with federal protections on student health and educational privacy.

“The way the department is doing this is to create a massive statewide surveillance tool that monitors all Floridians online actions and feed them into this database," Morton said. 

The database is part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School Safety Act, which also called for increased mental health services in schools along with better threat assessment monitoring and allowing designated school personnel including teachers, to carry guns. Some school districts are doing well with the new laws, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri recently told a U.S. House panel. 

“I can tell you as an example of one doing it well is…Pensacola, Escambia County—their superintendent gets it and they’ve implemented the right policies and procedures," Gualtieri said. But he also noted gaps in school security programs. 

“Today we’re seeing the most voids as far as compliance with it are in South Florida. Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach. Recently until a couple months ago Orange County, they did not have a safe-school officer on every campus.”  

A statewide Grand Jury report says numerous district’s aren’t in compliance with Florida’s school safety law—but the report did not say which districts or in what areas they weren’t in compliance with. Gualtieri chairs the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Pubic Safety Commission which made recommendations for safety improvements.

The state has spent millions of dollars on the law, including some $289 million for the new fiscal year. But Wakulla County Superintendent Bobby Pierce says the funding doesn’t match the need.

“For instance, with all of the recent mental health [requirements] and with the safety and security [requirements] there has been a lot of increased funding [pressure] there," says Pierce, "but in many case it has not been enough to meet the requirements and the need and so we’ve had to go into our budget to find those dollars.”

The Florida Department of Education will start tracking which districts are in compliance with the guardian program. The state is also requiring schools to teach about mental health, in addition to providing expanded services to struggling students.

Meanwhile, the ACLU of Florida says it’s natural after something like Parkland to aim toward prevention and try to find solutions. But trying to predict the next school shooter through data monitoring is wrong.

"When you have these school environments when the climate is so focused on surveillance and treating students as suspects it erodes the school climate, it causes more students to disengage…and increases violence. The one thing that’s shown over and over again to prevent these attacks is someone speaking up…and the only way kids will do that is if they feel safe asking for help for themselves or for a friend," says Morton.

According to an ACLU of Florida June report, there are more officers than counselors and nurses in state schools, and issue the advocacy group argues make students feel less safe in a place they’re supposed to be.