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Florida Launches Controversial Database Of Student Information Aimed At Identifying Threats

Jessica Bakeman
Members of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools police force monitor a simulated emergency on a school bus from the department's command center. A dozen screens cover the wall, showing live feeds from school surveillance cameras.

After a former student killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year, Florida public school children are being watched more closely.

Police in Miami-Dade and Broward counties now have real-time access to tens of thousands of surveillance cameras in schools. Miami-Dade's fleet of nearly 1,100 school buses is outfitted with GPS tracking devices. An app created by the state in the wake of Parkland lets people throughout Florida anonymously report tips about possible threats to campuses.

And in August, the Florida Department of Education launched a new database with information about students, like their discipline and mental health care records. One component of the Florida Schools Safety Portal is an online monitoring tool that scans social media for students' posts including words like "gun" or "bomb."

The portal was a recommendation from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, a group created to investigate the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting and recommend policy changes that could prevent similar massacres in the future.

But while civil rights groups, advocates for students with disabilities and some parents are concerned the database could jeopardize student privacy or lead to discrimination, commission members think it doesn't go far enough to keep schools safe.

“Don’t be walking away thinking that, ‘Oh my god, we have this magic wand,’ because, really, it’s not," said Bob Gualtieri, the commission's chair and the sheriff in Pinellas County, during an August meeting in Sunrise.

The commission's hope was to help teachers, mental health care providers, police officers and others who assess potential threats to schools get all the information they need about students in one place.

Credit Lily Oppenheimer / WLRN
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission Chair and Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is dissatisfied with the first iteration of a new data portal designed to help identify students who might pose threats to schools.

But Gualtieri was frustrated that the school district crime data in the portal is months old and often inaccurate. The law enforcement information is only from the state, not local agencies. Records about instances when students are referred to emergency psychiatric care, sometimes involuntarily, under the state Baker Act are only viewable by a limited number of people with the permissions under privacy laws to see them.

“What was being envisioned is to eliminate those silos and to try and create something where there could be this one-stop shopping," Gualtieri said.

He stressed he didn't blame the Department of Education for what he thought was a flawed product, saying officials there did the best they could given the limitations they were working under.

"What they were tasked to do was impossible," Gualtieri said.

State Sen. Lauren Book, a Broward County Democrat whose district includes Parkland, is the only legislator on the commission and helped write the law requiring the new portal. She's also a former kindergarten teacher.

She doesn’t think this portal goes far enough, either.

“It’s almost an ineffective tool, because people can see only what they can see already," she said. "So I would say that we’re still working on it. It’s a 1.0."

The commission members' take is in stark contrast to some of the public backlash to the portal.

"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, such as data on disabilities or those seeking mental health care," wrote a coalition of 33 civil rights, privacy and disability advocacy organizations in a July 9 letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis. They included the national and state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union, an arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Florida League of Women Voters.

"We urge you to immediately halt the state’s construction of this database and, instead, create a commission of parents, students, and experts on education, privacy, security, equity, disability rights, civil rights, and school safety, to identify measures that have been demonstrated to effectively identify and mitigate school safety threats," the groups wrote.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said the data is not "stored" in the portal. It may be viewed by people with access to the portal, but it may not be downloaded or shared.

The portal "is a tool to evaluate the seriousness of reported or identified threats and to assist in getting professional help when necessary," according to Cheryl Etters, the department's deputy director of communications. "The portal has internal and external controls to protect the information."

Even so, the portal is causing a lot of anxiety among parents. They worry even a misunderstanding involving their kids could show up in the database and lead to serious consequences.

"A lot of people these days just make dark humor jokes about a bunch of tragedies just for the comedy of it." - Eric, a high school sophomore in Miami-Dade County

One of those misunderstandings involved a Miami-Dade County high school student named Eric. WLRN is not using his family's last name to protect his privacy.

Last March, Eric had a couple friends over, and they were playing with plastic pellet guns in his room. At one point, Eric sat down in his desk chair holding an airsoft rifle designed to look like an AR-15.

Eric's friend took a picture of him holding the toy gun on the arm of his chair, pointing it toward the ceiling. In the image, Eric is looking at the camera.

Unbeknownst to Eric, his friend shared the photo on Snapchat with the caption: "Don't come to school Monday."

"A lot of people these days just make dark humor jokes about a bunch of tragedies just for the comedy of it," Eric said. "I don't think he really had the intention of getting me in trouble for it."

Eric did get in trouble, though.

Several days later, he said two police officers and his principal pulled him out of science class to question him.

"I was terrified," Eric said. "They think that I wanted to shoot up the school, and I didn’t — I didn't want to at all."

Eric was suspended for 10 days, and he almost got expelled, according to documents provided by his family. His parents fought it, though, explaining that he didn't take the picture, caption or send it anyone himself. Ultimately, he was moved from the A-rated magnet school he attended with his sister to a different school with a C grade. He's now a high school sophomore.

His parents want to transfer him somewhere else, but they worry about his record now: It says Eric distrubed a school campus with a weapon, which is far from what actually happened.

"Anybody that doesn't know the story will read this and say, 'There's no way in the world I'm going to put this child in my school,'" Eric's dad, Ricardo, said.

The Department of Education confirmed that the new school safety database includes information about past incidents.

A spokesman for Miami-Dade public school said the district takes threats seriously, investigates them thoroughly and disciplines students when necessary.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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