Advocacy groups are urging Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to stop developing a database intended to prevent school shootings, saying it could harm young people rather than protect them. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

(Update: Adding governor comment)

More than 30 advocacy groups are urging Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to stop developing a database of detailed information about students that is intended to prevent school shootings, saying it could harm young people rather than protect them.

Citing reporting by Education Week, the coalition of 33 civil rights, disabilities, privacy and education advocacy groups said in a letter to DeSantis (see text below) that the database in development is part of a “massive surveillance effort.”

“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,” the letter said.

DeSantis has backed the database, which as Education Week reported, was supposed to be operational at the start of 2019 but has been delayed for reasons that include questions about what information can be included.

DeSantis released a statement that said the database, called the Florida Schools Safety Portal, is a "tool for threat assessment teams to evaluate the seriousness of individual cases and is not being used to label students as potential threats.” It also said that the letter contains “fundamentally inaccurate information about the database,” but did not say what that was.

The advocacy groups said in their letter that the database is part of an “alarming” trend in Florida in which schools and the state Education Department are now required to “collect, store and analyze increasingly sensitive information about students.”

Education Week reported that Florida officials discussed including information such as instances of bullying based on protected characteristics, foster care records and homelessness status, history of mental illness and substance abuse, social media posts, and feelings of anger and persecution.

The database is part of an effort among states — which started after the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting deaths of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. — to try to prevent school shootings by tracking students who may become violent. Many of the school shooters have been students who attend, or once attended, the schools that have been attacked.

The advocacy groups said in the letter that some of the information that could be included in the database is highly subjective and has not been shown to predict behavior. They also said some students in need of services at school may be reluctant to get them:

“We also believe that if the state collects and stores some of this information, many students and their families will be deterred from seeking the services they need in school. Students who are homeless or in the foster care system, or those 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.”

Student privacy has been a growing concern among parents and privacy activists in the digital age, with online companies collecting data on users through various means, including online education programs used in schools.

In 2014, parent-activists successfully fought against a controversial $100 million student data collection project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and operated by a specially created nonprofit organization called inBloom. It was forced to shut down because of these concerns, an episode that served as a warning to parents about the extent of information on their children that is being shared without their knowledge.

Now, some parents and students are protesting the Summit online learning system, a joint project of Facebook and a charter school network called Summit Public Schools that has provoked concerns about student data privacy.

Here’s the text of the letter:

July 9, 2019

Dear Governor DeSantis:

We are a coalition of 33 education, disability, privacy, and civil rights advocacy groups writing to highlight substantial risks arising from Florida’s proposed school safety database. This project will collect information about children and young people’s social media activity and other sensitive topics, and store it in a state database to be shared with state employees, schools, and law enforcement. 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. 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.

Education Week recently detailed the types of information to be collected in Florida’s planned database. The categories discussed included 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, among others. We believe this 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.

This database is part of an alarming trend in Florida over the past year. Since the passage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School 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. 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. 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.

The proposed database will include students’ social media posts, but as the Brennan Center for Justice reports, 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.

The database would cast an extremely wide net not just with respect to people but also with respect to the types of information collected and stored. According to Education Week’s reporting, information that state agencies discussed including in the database were students’:

● Experiences of bullying based on 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. 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 prone to error and bias, particularly in the case of students of color, who are far more likely to be perceived as aggressive or hostile than white students. Its use by state authorities would therefore be of questionable value. Moreover, collecting this information for school safety purposes will convey a damaging and stigmatizing message to educators, students and parents about students who fall within the targeted categories.

We also believe that if the state collects and stores some of this information, many students and their families will be deterred from seeking the services they need in school. Students who are homeless or in the foster care system, or those 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 your residents.

Experts agree that data must be secured in proportion to its sensitivity and risk. The database contemplated in this case would include extraordinarily sensitive information, and therefore require extraordinary protections. It is incumbent on those proposing a risky program to demonstrate that they have mitigated the potential harms. The program’s proponents have not done so. In fact, there have been no concrete proposals addressing how his extremely sensitive information about Florida's children would be secured. At the very least, this database must be put on hold until these vital security risks have been addressed.

Because of these serious safety risks, we ask that you immediately halt the state’s construction of this database and, instead, create a commission of parents, students, and experts on education, privacy, equity, disability rights, civil rights, and school safety, to determine whether a state database would actually help to identify school safety threats and would not pose undue harm to students. This commission should also identify the legal, ethical, privacy, and security parameters that should be an integral part of this database, including the understanding that data collected to help children should not be repurposed in ways that could harm them.

Failing that, we ask that you require the state to produce the following protocols and information and make them publicly available:

● Data governance documents, including information about the sources from which the state obtains student data; who will have access to the data; which analytics, algorithmic, or AI processes and programs will be performed on the data; how data will be secured; and how those interacting with the data will be trained in how to use and protect it.

● A method by which parents may contest and correct both the information contained in the database and any inferences made about students based on the collected information.

● A deletion schedule for student information.

● A modified list of records to be collected that excludes information concerning students’ disabilities, including information about mental health and substance use disorder histories and involuntary psychiatric examinations.

● A public commitment to abide by all federal and state privacy and nondiscrimination laws.

We hope that you will redirect this effort and work with us to practice evidence-based methods to keep students safe, without trampling on civil rights or the safety of all students.

Sincerely,

Access Now

ACLU

ACLU of Florida

The Advocacy Institute

American Association of School Librarians

American Association of People with Disabilities

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