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To Enhance School Security, Florida Launches Controversial Student Database

The Department of Education said it won’t be used to “label students as potential threats."

Students evacuating Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after a mass shooting on Valentine's Day.
(TNS/Sun Sentinel/Mike Stocker)
By Emily L. Mahoney

The Florida Department of Education rolled out its database of student information, called the Florida Schools Safety Portal, late Thursday, designed to enhance school security in the wake of last year’s shooting in Parkland.

The data is primarily designated for use by schools’ “threat assessment teams.” Those are groups of law enforcement, counselors and other school staff charged with evaluating the seriousness of threats made by students and whether a student may need professional help.

The data portal will include access to information about students’ history with law enforcement, discipline as well as any social media posts that contain “certain critical threat indicators,” according to a news release. It will also include information from FortifyFL, an app created by the state to allow reporting of suspicious behavior, plus whether the student was ever “Baker-Acted,” or involuntarily committed to a mental health treatment facility under Florida law.

The portal “will not be used to label students as potential threats,” the Department stated in the release, “but rather is a tool to evaluate the seriousness of reported or identified threats and to assist in getting professional help when necessary.”

Outside groups have questioned whether the database amounts to a violation of students’ privacy.

Last month, civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center and several that advocate for people with disabilities or mental illnesses, sent a letter to DeSantis saying the database amounted to an “overly broad” attempt at “mass surveillance” of students that could end up discouraging kids from reporting bullying incidents or mental health needs out of fear that they could be labeled as a “potential school shooter.”

Those groups raised alarms about the possibility of including whether children have been victims of bullying based on race, religion, disability, and sexual orientation, saying it would amount to a “de facto state repository designed to track children based on federally protected characteristics.”

Apparently in response to those concerns, the Department clarified Thursday that “the portal does not store information about students’ race, religion, disability or sexual orientation.”

Access to the database is restricted only to certain personnel who have signed user agreements, and only for 30-minute viewing sessions. The data cannot be downloaded or stored, the Department said.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who has spearheaded much of the states’ school security efforts as chairman of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, emphasized how gathering all this information in a central place will help schools and law enforcement.

“You need information quickly especially to evaluate a threat, and if you have to go to the variety of sources, one, it takes a lot of time and two, there’s an opportunity that things are going to get missed. So what is a better approach is a one-stop shopping approach," he said. “The last thing we want to do is make a decision that’s wrong because we had the information, we just couldn’t access it.”

The portal’s creation was mandated by the law passed in response to the shooting, which left 17 people dead and 17 more injured, in addition to an executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis in February. The deadline for the Department to launch the database was Thursday.

Gualtieri added that there will be a presentation about further details of the data portal at the next meeting of the commission, which is scheduled for August 14 and 15 in Broward County.

(c)2019 the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.)

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