33 Organizations Send Letter to Florida Governor DeSantis

33 Organizations Send Letter to Florida Governor DeSantis

UPDATED WITH RESPONSE TO GOVERNOR’S PRESS STATEMENT HERE

Today, the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) and 32 other education, disability rights, privacy, and civil rights organizations sent this letter urging Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to halt the implementation of the state’s proposed school safety database. The letter responds to an article recently published by Education Week detailing Florida’s efforts to create the database to track students who might be considered threats. For the database, the state considered collecting categories of information such as children who have been victims of bullying based on protected statuses such as race, religion, disability, and sexual orientation; children who have been treated for substance abuse or undergone involuntary psychiatric assessments; and children who have been in foster care.

While this database indicates the Florida legislature’s and the governor’s desire to prevent another mass shooting, we believe the database represents a significant safety risk because it collects 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. Signatories to the letter include the ACLU, the American Association of People with Disabilities, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Common Sense Media, the Florida Council of Administrators of Special Education, the Learning Disabilities Association of America, the School Social Work Association of America, and other prominent organizations (see full list below).

Florida’s proposed database is part of an alarming trend in the state over the past year. Since the passage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act in 2018, Florida has required schools and the state department of education to collect, store, and analyze increasingly sensitive information about students. For example, districts have been required to collect mental health information from students as a registration requirement for the new academic year. Yet, the state has provided no guidance on how to ensure the accuracy of this sensitive information, the information’s value in the prevention of violence, or whether and how districts will dispose of the records.

The proposed database would cast an extremely wide net over the types of information collected and stored. According to Education Week’s reporting, state agencies discussed including the following categories of information in the database:

  • Students who were bullied or harassed due to protected characteristics;
  • Foster care records;
  • Immunization records;
  • Homelessness status;
  • Social media posts;
  • Involuntary psychiatric exams;
  • History of mental illness;
  • Criminal records (including unverified reports of suspicious activity);
  • History of substance abuse;
  • Disciplinary records; and
  • Feelings of anger and persecution.

These wide-ranging categories vary in their relevance to potential threatening behavior. It is unclear how immunization records, for example, will help educators determine whether students are likely to commit violent crimes at school. The inclusion of students’ social media posts is predicated on the assumption that proactively gathering such information can help authorities accurately predict the next school safety threat. Yet, according to another article in Education Week, that is unlikely, and the Brennan Center for Justice reports that there is no proof that social media monitoring programs work. The Department of Homeland Security has been using this technology since 2016 and has not found it to be effective. Moreover, the algorithms used in these monitoring systems are susceptible to bias and will disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities.

Furthermore, some information, such as students’ feelings of anger or desire for revenge, is highly subjective and difficult to capture in a database. Depending on students’ ages and circumstances, those feelings may be developmentally appropriate and have no bearing on the likelihood of violent behavior. Assessing the accuracy of this kind of information would be difficult at best and, again, prone to error and bias, particularly for students of color, who are far more likely than white students to be perceived as aggressive or hostile. Its use by state authorities would therefore be of questionable value. Moreover, collecting this information for school safety purposes will convey a damaging, stigmatizing message to educators, students, and parents regarding the students included in the targeted categories.

We also believe that if the state collects and stores some of this information, it will deter many students and their families from seeking the services they need in school. Students who are homeless, in the foster care system, or who have mental health disabilities may limit the services they use, out of concern that the state may use the information to flag them as potential threats. Likewise, students who are bullied because they are LGBT, have a disability, or have a minority religious affiliation may choose not to report the abuse to their schools if they fear the schools will respond by identifying them as threats. This could create a perverse incentive leading students to avoid reporting serious or life-threatening behavior because they don’t want to be labeled as a potential school shooter.

These possibilities suggest that the proposed database is not only unlikely to improve student safety, but it will introduce many safety risks. In addition to posing the risks outlined above, it will create a permanent record of questionable accuracy that will follow students from school to school––and possibly their entire lives. The overly broad nature of this service, coupled with its risks, means that Florida will engage in a mass surveillance effort that will ultimately provide little benefit and will significantly erode the civil liberties of its residents. No evidence demonstrates that creating a massive digital surveillance infrastructure helps to prevent school violence, but studies do suggest that it may cause students to feel less safe at school. And without safeguards and protections, the state risks building a structure to systematically discriminate against students based on protected statuses.

We also have significant concerns about the security of the information being stored in the database. There have been no proposals for how to secure this extraordinarily sensitive data, and the state does not seem to understand the importance of protecting this type of database from bad actors.

Because of these serious risks, we have asked Florida’s governor to immediately halt the construction of this database and, instead, to create a commission of parents, students, and experts on education, privacy, equity, disability rights, civil rights, and school safety, to determine whether a database would actually help to identify school safety threats without causing undue harm to students.

Read the full letter to Governor DeSantis here, and see a list of resources on school safety and privacy from FPF and other organizations here. In particular, the letter is consistent with the values of the School Safety Principles, ten principles released by 40 organizations earlier this year to protect all students’ privacy, dignity, and right to an equal education, and with FPF’s animated video introduction to school safety and privacy, released in early June.

Signatories: 

  • Access Now
  • ACLU
  • ACLU of Florida
  • The Advocacy Institute
  • American Association of People with Disabilities
  • American Association of School Librarians
  • Autism Society of Florida
  • Autistic Self Advocacy Network
  • Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law
  • The Campaign to Keep Guns off Campus
  • Common Sense Media
  • Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates
  • Disability Independence Group, Inc
  • Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation
  • Electronic Privacy Information Center
  • Florida Council of Administrators of Special Education
  • Florida League of Women Voters
  • Future of Privacy Forum
  • Intercultural Development Research Association
  • Learning Disabilities Association of America
  • Learning Disabilities Association of Florida
  • Mental Health America
  • Mental Health Association in Indian River County, Florida, a proud affiliate of Mental Health America
  • National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities
  • National Center for Learning Disabilities
  • National Center for Youth Law
  • The National Council on Independent Living
  • National Disability Rights Network
  • Public Advocacy for Kids
  • School Social Work Association of America
  • SPLC Action Fund
  • TASH


Updated July 10, 2019, 1:00pm ET

Statement in Response to Florida Governor DeSantis’ Comment to Press on the Letter

Our organizations want to ensure that our characterization of Florida’s school safety database is accurate. Unfortunately, the governor’s statement does not identify which data will be collected, how it will be used, how people’s data will be protected, and how to ensure students are treated equitably. We welcome the governor’s identification of specific inaccuracies in our letter.

Our letter identified numerous sensitive data categories that state officials considered including in this database, for example whether students have been victims of bullying or harassment due to a protected characteristic such as disability and whether a student was or is in foster care. The governor should immediately publish all categories that have been chosen for inclusion so that parents and students understand which information will be used. This is consistent with Florida’s commitment to open records and transparency and will allow the public to better assess whether those categories should be included in the database. Until that is made public, we must assume that the Education Week reporting is correct and comprehensive and that this database may deter students and their families from seeking the services they need.

The governor should also clarify how the database will be used. His statement says that “access to timely, more accurate information allows law enforcement to respond and intercept possible threats within our schools,” but as we wrote in our letter, providing law enforcement access to “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.” Until the governor responds to the specific concerns outlined in our letter, which includes bringing students and parents into the process of creating this database, our organizations will continue to speak out. We expect Florida to implement evidence-based methods to keep students safe, without compromising civil rights or the safety of all students.

Signed*:

  • Access Now
  • ACLU of Florida
  • Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law
  • Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates
  • Disability Independence Group, Inc
  • Florida League of Women Voters
  • Future of Privacy Forum
  • National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities
  • Public Advocacy for Kids
  • Southern Poverty Law Center
  • TASH
  • The Advocacy Institute

 

* Other letter signatories were contacted to join this statement. We are only posting those they have affirmatively said they would like to sign this supplementary statement; therefore, this list will be updated as we receive more responses.

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