As summer winds down, I find myself, like many parents nagging my teen to finish his summer reading assignments. I understand that reading is not at the top of his to-do list this summer, but I love to read and wish he did too. As a child, I found solace in books; they were my adventures, my escape and often amid their covers I found my kindred spirits. As an adolescent, reading and writing provided connection/perspective and the summer was an opportunity to read uninterrupted for hours. And while it breaks my book-loving heart that reading is so often considered a chore instead of a privilege by this tech-enhanced generation, it should be noted that the same technology that makes reading appear obsolete also provides us with tools like audio books and online access to resources that can be paired with summer reading assignments and make them multidimensional.
However, this summer, thanks to the passage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act in 2018 (SB 7026) parents also have a summer reading and advocacy assignment due before the start of the 2019-20 school year. Specifically, the 105-page bill available at https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2018/07026 details changes in school safety, which include but are not limited to: the creation of the Office of Safe Schools within the Department of Education (DOE), reports to said entity which include a report due on September 1st from every school district detailing their school safety/psychological service plan(s), the creation of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission within the Department of Law Enforcement, requirements for school safety officers and the FortyFL application which allows individuals to report suspicious activity. For more details on implementation of the law visit http://www.fldoe.org/safe-schools/
While many of the changes have been well received, there are controversial aspects of the law, one of which directs the DOE Office of Safe Schools alongside the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to create a ‘centralized integrated data repository and data analytics resources’ to be used as a statewide “threat assessment.’ According to the bill the repository will aggregate student data from social media, state and local law enforcement, the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Juvenile Justice and other ‘unspecified sources.’
It remains unclear whether local school boards will also be providing information. Education Week has claimed based on public records requests that the information being gathered may include such sensitive information as: foster care records, immunization records, information on students that have been bullied and/or harassed, homelessness status, involuntary psychiatric exams, mental health history, criminal records, substance abuse records, disciplinary records, information regarding anger issues/outbursts and all social media posts. See https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2019/05/30/florida-plan-for-a-huge-database-to.html
The deadline for participating entities to provide the DOE with the information on children attending traditional public schools and charter schools in the State of Florida is August 1, 2019. Currently it is unclear exactly what information will be provided, by whom and if the State of Florida once in possession of this information will create an algorithm like the one that the Department of Homeland Security has been utilizing for several years. It is also unclear how the State will use this information, whether parents will have access to review and if necessary, correct the information and whether said information will be a public record as defined by Florida law. It is also unclear whether and how a child will be deemed a threat or a risk and who/what the response to set assessment will be.
For these and other privacy concerns on July 9, 2019, thirty three (33) organizations sent a letter to Governor DeSantis requesting that he “immediately halt the state’s construction of this database and instead create a commission of parents, student 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.” The letter to Governor can be read at https://ferpasherpa.org/letterdesantis/#Statement.
In response the Governor issued a statement stating that the claims in the letter were erroneous and that “Ensuring the safety and security of our students will always be our primary concern… Access to timely, more accurate information allows law enforcement to respond and intercept possible threats within our schools.” And while we all agree that safety and security is a primary concern, the Governor’s statement does not answer the many questions regarding the statewide database, its participants and the potential impact on local control specifically in Miami-Dade County Public Schools wherein the district has its own police department.
To date the August 1st implementation deadline stands and we the parents of those impacted should weigh in. We all agree that school safety is a priority, that given what we now know about the information available to Broward County Public Schools regarding the shooter, oversight is needed, and that law enforcement, administrators, teachers and parents need more comprehensive information. However, if every school year we need to sign off on use of photographs taken of our children in schools we should also be provided with details about the compilation and use of their personal information no matter what the purpose. We also need details on how the information will be used, for what time period, how and if it will be destroyed and if it will remain confidential. We also need more information on the intersection between State action and our local school boards and if the creation of the database also creates an obligation to act on the part of the State.
So amid nagging our kids to finish summer reading assignments and the purchasing of back-to-school gear, please take some time to read the resources provided herein, research the issues using the technology available to us instead on relying on what is placed in our children’s’ backpacks and deep dive into the many moving parts of this school security legislation. Then take a moment to write an email to the governor with your thoughts regarding school safety, implementation, privacy, parental consent/disclosures and local control at https://www.flgov.com/email-the-governor/ because civic advocacy like reading is a privilege, not a chore.
Raquel Regalado is an attorney and a former Miami-Dade County School Board Member.