Florida’s Pasco County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) has been compiling secret lists of middle and high school students that they believe could “fall into a life of crime.”
The confidential records, some protected by state and federal law due to the sensitive nature of their contents, have been used to single out children with poor grades, or who have been a victim of or a witness to abuse – all criteria that the Sheriff’s office uses to compile its roster.
According to Pasco County law enforcement officials, 420 students are currently on the list – a list created by data plucked surreptitiously from academic records and those of the state Department of Children and Families.
Neither the parents nor the children have been aware of the Sheriff’s Office’s practices until now, and even school superintendent Kurt Browning said he was “unaware of the Sheriff’s Office was using school data to identify kids who might become criminals,” the Tampa Bay Times reported.
The principals of two local high schools also had no idea that the Sheriff’s Office was utilizing its records to brand children as potential criminals and affect their future employment and educational prospects.
The practice has raised questions about the privacy and confidentiality of student records. Multiple law enforcement experts have expressed concern about the potential misuse of the children’s information and called the program “unusual,” in a massive understatement.
“Can you imagine having your kid in that county and they might be on a list that says they may become a criminal?” said Linnette Attai, a consultant who helps companies and schools comply with student privacy laws.
The Sheriff’s Office responded to the criticism by saying the program’s use of the confidential data “was also designed to identify students at risk for victimization, truancy, self-harm and substance abuse.” Except that none of that is the job of law enforcement – and neither is combing through private school and children’s services records without cause and flagging vulnerable children for possible harassment and law enforcement engagement.
The PCSO intelligence manual offers no solutions for victims of crime – it only offers tip for identifying potential criminals. It highlights a method known as “Intelligence-led Policing” (ILP) that focuses on “problem people, problem places and problem groups.” Groups utilizing the method say that ILP puts police back in the role of “crime fighters,” and:
“Places the prioritization of crime problems in the hands of law enforcement commanders who have a better understanding of the criminal environment predicated upon criminal intelligence rather than the public.”
It seems like an attitude of “go away and leave this to the professionals, little girl” seems to pervade these law enforcement commanders who think their skills of perception and prognostication exceed mere mortals.
In the section titled “Crime Prevention,” the ILP manual highlights how to identify at-risk youth who are “destined to a life of crime” by using so-called “risk factors” and correlating identifiable systemic risk. The system links bad grades to excessive drinking, and socioeconomic status to being a convicted criminal at an early age.
The manual quotes British author David Farrington, who has written on child delinquency, to bolster the Sheriff’s Department’s claims:
“Estimated that the best predictors in 10-year-olds of having a criminal conviction later in life are socio-economic deprivation, antisocial parents and siblings, poor parental supervision and child-rearing, coming from broken homes, low intelligence, and a poor school record.”
The problem is that correlation IS NOT the same as causation, no matter what the Sheriff’s Department may believe.
While the ILP manual defines a “prolific offender” as “a person of any age who meets or exceeds a threshold calculated by weighing his or her three-year history of arrests and suspicions for criminal offenses in Pasco County,” it goes on to list repeat victims under that category, meaning that a child subjected to repetitive abuse would be looked at as a suspect, rather than a victim according to this model.
In 2020, the Tampa Bay Times exposed the PCSO’s practice under Sheriff Chris Nocco, which targeted and harassed residents considered “likely” to break the law based on the prior records and “intelligence” gathered. According to the report:
“They swarm homes in the middle of the night, waking families and embarrassing people in front of their neighbors. They write tickets for missing mailbox numbers and overgrown grass, saddling residents with court dates and fines. They come again and again, making arrests for any reason they can.”
Targets receive a four-page letter from PCSO, informing them of their “enrollment” in the overreaching program:
“You may wonder why you were enrolled in this program,” the letter continues. “You were selected as a result of an evaluation of your recent criminal behavior using an unbiased, evidence-based risk assessment designed to identify prolific offenders in our community. As a result of this designation, we will go to great efforts to encourage change in your life through enhanced support and increased accountability.”
Nearly 1,000 people have been caught in the Sheriff’s Office’s web, and at least 1 in 10 have been under the age of 18. In 2019, 15-year-old Rio Wotjecki was targeted after being arrested for stealing motorized bicycles. In the span of four months, officers visited Wotjecki at least 21 times at his home according to logs, even showing up at the teenager’s mother’s job, looking for him – even though there was no evidence of committing further crimes. Unreasonable search and seizure, anyone?
That the confidential records of vulnerable and at-risk students in Pasco County are being turned over to law enforcement officials without their — or their parent’s — knowledge is less about protecting the community than about controlling a demographic, one that is already marginalized and facing adversity. The school-to-prison pipeline is thriving, and the Pasco County Sheriff’s office is loading up the hamper.
PCSO reportedly has plans to target those students admitted to psychiatric hospitals next.
Perhaps they should commit themselves for their insane and dangerous approach to crime prevention.
Read the PCSO manual here.
Original reporting by Neil Bedi and Kathleen McGrory at the Tampa Bay Times.
Follow Ty Ross on Twitter @cooltxchick