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Analysis

Police Shouldn’t Tag Students as Potential Criminals

Putting kids on a police watchlist is the exact opposite of how to handle signs that a student may need help.

December 22, 2020

In a disturb­ing example of predict­ive poli­cing taken to extremes, a county police depart­ment has created a secret list of kids it thinks could “fall into a life of crime.” Accord­ing to docu­ments revealed by the Tampa Bay Times, students can be labeled as “at-risk youth who are destined to a life of crime” if they get a D in a class, have three absences in a quarter, get a single discip­line refer­ral, or have exper­i­enced child­hood trauma.

If a list like this exis­ted when I was a teacher in East Baltimore, the vast major­ity of my students would have been placed on it — not because they were likely to develop into “prolific offend­ers,” as the Pasco County Sher­iff Office’s intel­li­gence manual suggests, but because the combined forces of concen­trated poverty, insti­tu­tion­al­ized racism, and decades-long disin­vest­ment make hitting at least one of these indic­at­ors almost unavoid­able.

The sher­iff’s office uses data from the school district, the state’s Depart­ment of Chil­dren and Famil­ies, and its own records to categor­ize certain chil­dren as “at risk of becom­ing crim­in­als.” The school district has defen­ded the policy, but privacy experts have chal­lenged the legal­ity of the prac­tice, noting that federal law allows schools to share student data with police only under very specific circum­stances. Addi­tion­ally, misuse of sens­it­ive data can put chil­dren at risk of being unfairly targeted or impact their long-term traject­ory if the desig­na­tion follows them through the school system.

In many ways, the Pasco program paral­lels law enforce­ment’s use of gang data­bases and predict­ive poli­cing tools around the coun­try. Gang data­bases have long been criti­cized for the subject­ive and over­broad criteria that funnel indi­vidu­als — mostly Black and Latino men — into the system without their know­ledge and with little due process.

The New York City Police Depart­ment, for example, can add someone to the city’s gang data­base if they are present at a “known gang loca­tion” and frequently wear colors that are asso­ci­ated with a partic­u­lar gang. For indi­vidu­als who live in an area with a local gang or crew pres­ence, going to the neigh­bor­hood corner store and wear­ing the color blue can be considered suffi­cient evid­ence for inclu­sion. A person can be added to the data­base without being directly asso­ci­ated with crim­inal activ­ity and it’s gener­ally almost impossible to find out if you’ve been added or peti­tion for removal.

The Bren­nan Center and other advoc­ates have cautioned law enforce­ment against rely­ing on vague and biased indic­at­ors to fore­cast crime, and those concerns are espe­cially sali­ent when such tactics draw on intim­ate student data to implic­ate minors.

The Pasco sher­iff’s list relies on indic­at­ors that are over­broad to the point of being mean­ing­less. Having just one of a multi­tude of mark­ers — includ­ing receiv­ing a discip­lin­ary refer­ral, low attend­ance, fail­ing a class, viol­at­ing the county’s youth curfew, and even being the subject of a custody dispute — can land a child on law enforce­ment’s radar. The police intel­li­gence manual also suggests that having “low intel­li­gence” or coming from “broken homes” are predict­ive factors in determ­in­ing whether chil­dren will break the law.

Fall­ing into any of these categor­ies may warrant inter­ven­tion, but that should come in the form of support­ive services, not a poten­tially punit­ive label. Indeed, it’s not clear precisely what the sher­iff’s office does with the list, as the office does not inform students or their parents if they’ve been added and there’s no clear path to appeal or request removal.

However, with 30 school resource officers respons­ible for over­see­ing nearly 30,000 students across the county, it seems likely that chil­dren flagged by the list will be easy targets for school police — the one group with which the sher­iff’s office is empowered to share the list. At the same time, research has shown that increased contact between students and school resource officers can result in higher rates of arrests even for minor, non-crim­inal offenses. As the intel­li­gence manual directs officers to lever­age their rela­tion­ships with students to find “seeds of crim­inal activ­ity,” it’s also possible that chil­dren on the list will be ques­tioned about or used to surveil the communit­ies they come from.

Further­more, many of the factors that warrant place­ment on the list are more likely to capture margin­al­ized students than their more priv­ileged peers. Accord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Educa­tion, Native Amer­ican, Black, and Hispanic students are more likely to miss three weeks of school or more compared to their white peers. Students with disab­il­it­ies are about 50 percent more likely to be chron­ic­ally absent than students without disab­il­it­ies. When it comes to school discip­line, Black students tend to be discip­lined more frequently and severely for the same misbe­ha­vi­ors as White students. Students with disab­il­it­ies face dispro­por­tion­ate punish­ment as well.

The Pasco County list also draws on child welfare data to find out which students have exper­i­enced child­hood trauma, another factor that impacts low-income youths at higher rates. By rely­ing on data that places focus on vulner­able, already-over­po­liced popu­la­tions to make predic­tions about future crim­inal activ­ity, the Pasco County list may perpetu­ate exist­ing dispar­it­ies and rein­force the school-to-prison pipeline.

The consequences of labeling a student “likely crim­inal” could be signi­fic­ant. Another predict­ive poli­cing effort in Pasco County that relied on unspe­cific data to gener­ate a list of people “likely to break the law” resul­ted in police harass­ing a 15-year-old, issu­ing a $2,500 fine to the mother of a teen­age target for keep­ing chick­ens in the back­yard, and arrest­ing another target’s father after they saw a 17-year-old smoking a cigar­ette through the house window.

The program gave depu­ties a green­light to continu­ously monitor and hassle targets, many of whom were juven­iles with low-level past offenses. Although predict­ive tools like gang data­bases and the Pasco County list are touted by law enforce­ment as ways to keep communit­ies safe, they often sweep up and endanger vulner­able indi­vidu­als in the process.

In the wake of George Floy­d’s murder, activ­ists have doubled down on their calls to remove law enforce­ment from public schools and major districts have cut their contracts with local police depart­ments. Mean­while, the Pasco County Sher­iff’s Office is moving in the wrong direc­tion by putting students on a watch­list because of their ordin­ary though all-too-common­place struggles. Pasco County and all schools must let students be students. If they fail, if they’re absent, if they face adversity outside of the classroom, bring in support — teach­ers, coun­selors, social work­ers, and family — not the police.