Florida Sheriff’s Department Targets Schoolchildren as Future Criminals Based on Their Abuse History

By Shani Saxon Nov 24, 2020

The Sheriff’s office in Pasco, Florida, is secretly keeping a list of school-age children that they believe could one day be arrested. According to the agency’s internal intelligence manual, officials weigh factors like whether kids have been abused or have performed poorly in school in order to determine the likelihood that kids will “fall into a life of crime,” reports the Tampa Bay Times

According to the Tampa Bay Times:

The Sheriff’s Office assembles the list by combining the rosters for most middle and high schools in the county with records so sensitive, they’re protected by state and federal law.

School district data shows which children are struggling academically, miss too many classes or are sent to the office for discipline. Records from the state Department of Children and Families flag kids who have witnessed household violence or experienced it themselves.

According to the manual, any one of those factors makes a child more likely to become a criminal.

The Sheriff’s Office told the Tampa Bay Times that there are currently 420 children on the list. Officials do not communicate with parents or with any of the kids identified when compiling names, they explained. School superintendent Kurt Browning told the news outlet that he had no idea that school data was being used to target and profile students. 

Ten experts in law enforcement and student privacy who spoke to the Tampa Bay Times expressed the highly unusual nature of a list like this one. Many indicated that it stretched the limits of the law to target juveniles by using confidential information.

The Sheriff’s Office insisted to the Tampa Bay Times that this list isn’t purely about identifying potential future criminals. They claim it’s also “designed to identify students at risk for victimization, truancy, self-harm and substance abuse,” according to the outlet. However, as the Tampa Bay Times notes, the intelligence manual “doesn’t mention those other risks. Instead, in five separate places, it describes efforts to pinpoint kids who are likely to become criminals.”

According to the Tampa Bay Times:

The list of school kids isn’t the agency’s only effort to identify and target people it considers likely to commit crimes. In September, a Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed that the department’s intelligence arm also uses people’s criminal histories and social networks to predict if they will break the law.

Even when there is no evidence of a crime, The Times reports that The Sheriff’s Office makes it a point to pursue those identified with criminal histories. Former deputies told the news outlet that “they were ordered to harass people on the target list by visiting their homes repeatedly and looking for reasons to write tickets and make arrests. One in 10 of the people targeted have been teenagers.” 

Experts argue that children of color and those with disabilities are disproportionally targeted for the secret list of potential future criminals. “It is a recipe for violating people’s rights and civil liberties,” Harold Jordan, a senior policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, told the Tampa Bay Times.

Sensitive information regarding children should remain “in the hands of people who can offer help,” Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor at American University, told the Times. “Police are not in the business of offering help to juveniles,” he added. “They are in the business of policing.”