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Advocacy Groups Protest Florida Database That May Discriminate Against Students With Disabilities

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On Tuesday, a coalition of 33 disability, mental health and digital privacy advocacy organizations signed an open letter to current Florida Governor Ron DeSantis opposing an upcoming database that may harm students with disabilities and mental health conditions. In an effort to identify school shooting threats, the proposed database would compare student social media posts with a wide range of personal information advocacy groups say set vulnerable students up for more discrimination.

Following the mass school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in February 2018, Florida passed sweeping legislation designed to reduce the risk of school shootings. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which passed three weeks after the shooting, included stricter regulations for purchasing guns, increased spending on mental health services and, more controversially, requiring students to disclose mental health referrals at the beginning of the school year.

The database opposed by advocacy groups is also part of the law. The proposed database will collect student information about everything from bullying based on race, sexual orientation, disability, foster care placement, vaccination records, homelessness status, history of mental illness or substance use, criminal records, discipline records and reports of feeling angry or persecuted as well as student social media posts.

In writing its letter, advocacy groups expressed worry this sensitive information won’t be used to protect schools as intended but will further perpetuate false narratives about vulnerable students.

“We are a coalition of 33 education, disability, privacy, and civil rights advocacy groups writing to highlight substantial risks arising from Florida’s proposed school safety database,” the letter reads. “We are deeply concerned that the program will be used to label students as threats based on data that has no documented link to violent behavior, such as data on disabilities or those seeking mental health care.”

The letter, which is signed by disability and mental health organizations, including Mental Health America, American Association of People with Disabilities, Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, National Center for Learning Disabilities and the National Disability Rights Network, among others, also pointed out the database may prevent students and their families from seeking support and services out of fear the information will land in the database.

While so far such a proposed database is unique to Florida, Stephanie Langer, Esq., staff attorney for the Disability Independence Group, which also signed the letter, highlighted other states are watching to see if the program is successful.

“Florida is going further than any other state has gone since mass shootings began so what we do will be repeated by other places, especially because it is seen as tough on crime, aggressive and successful,” Langer told The Mighty via email, adding:

We already have a large problem of students with disabilities and minority students being disproportionally disciplined, arrested, suspended, expelled, restrained, isolated and [involuntarily civilly committed] and pushed out of public school. These provisions make it worse for these students, while doing nothing to prevent another mass shooting or keeping any other students safe.

At the crux of the opposition letter sent to Governor DeSantis is a lack of evidence such a database will work. One major aspect of the plan, watching student social media accounts, does not prevent school shootings, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. In a post outlining its letter, Future of Privacy Forum said the algorithms used to monitor similar databases may be biased and negatively impact students with disabilities, mental health issues and other health conditions.

As Amelia Vance, director of education privacy for the Future of Privacy Forum and letter signer, wrote in a guest column for the Orlando Sentinel, “Through this policy, Florida lawmakers are saying that we should watch certain kids who are different –– whether they be disabled, gay, of a different religion, different skin color, or foster kids –– because the fact that they have been harassed increases the chance that they will be a threat.”

Langer also fears the database will be a tool for adults to protect themselves against legal action as opposed to protecting students. It may also be used to remove “difficult” students from classes without any evidence or guidance supporting the database’s use.

“There are no rules about who can access the information within these agencies, how long the data will be maintained, what information should be included and what, more importantly, should not be included,” Langer said, adding:

There is no evidence based research to support that what is being done will actually make children safer in schools and in fact most of the research will show that it will not make anyone safer and will make disabled and minority students more unsafe in school. It will further discourage students and families that do need help from reaching out to the school for help. Schools are no longer a safe resource.

The coalition of advocacy groups concluded its letter by asking DeSantis to shut down the database or at the very least, be more transparent about how it plans to use the information. “Because of these serious safety risks, we ask that you immediately halt the state’s construction of this database,” the letter said, continuing:

Instead, create a commission of parents, students, 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. This commission should also identify the legal, ethical, privacy, and security parameters that should be an integral part of this database, including the understanding that data collected to help children should not be repurposed in ways that could harm them.

Langer added it’s important for others to speak out against Florida’s database, not only to protect students in Florida, but nationwide. She advised reaching out to your elected representatives and state officials and superintendents and school boards as well as using social media to draw attention to the dangers of such a database for students.

“There are not people at the table who are making these decisions who represent the voices of students with disabilities, victims of bullying, foster kids and minority students,” Langer said. “We are not learning from our mistakes in the past, but rather doubling down on bad policies. I know we are making schools and students less safe. I fear that is the intent.”

Header image via scyther5/Getty Images

Originally published: July 9, 2019
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