How community members in Ramsey County stopped a big-data plan from flagging students as at-risk

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On Jan. 28, 2019, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter made an announcement at St. Paul’s City Hall that caught many observers by surprise: after months of community resistance, city and county officials have decided to walk away from a controversial data-sharing initiative.

The initiative – unanimously approved by the Ramsey County Attorney, the County Sheriff of St. Paul-Ramsey Public Health, the St. Paul School Board, the St. Paul mayor and city councilmembers in early 2018 – would have allowed Ramsey county to merge broad sets of child welfare, education and juvenile justice system data and share that information with researchers at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. Those researchers would have studied the data and attempted to identify early risk factors associated with later criminal justice system involvement.

Officials said their goal was to flag vulnerable young people and offer them help before they got into trouble.

Critics of this joint powers agreement contended that the community engagement process leading to the initiative was deeply flawed, and that labeling children as potential future criminals would do more harm than good. They also charged that officials had voted for the plan without fully understanding its dangers.

Marika Pfefferkorn, co-founder of the Coalition to Stop the Cradle to Prison Algorithm, a group that had organized against the data-sharing initiative, said she’s celebrating the plan’s dissolution. But she’s concerned nonetheless that officials are moving too quickly to start community engagement for a new plan before thoroughly processing what went wrong this time around.

“If [officials] are really listening to the pulse of the community … ,” said Pfefferkorn, “they will stop, pause, reflect and repair.”

Community foresaw potential problems with joint powers agreement
When Pfefferkorn first heard about a plan to use students’ private data to predict their risk of predict their risk of future criminal justice system involvement, she says the hairs on the back of her neck stood up.

Pfefferkorn, who also directs the Midwest Center for School Transformation, said the proposal sounded like science fiction.

Laura LaBlanc of InEquality, a group working to amplify the voices of people impacted by the Ramsey County criminal justice system, first learned about the data-sharing agreement plan on March 12, 2018, when she stopped at a coffee shop and a newspaper headline caught her eye.

As a member of the Ramsey County Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative stakeholder committee, LaBlanc knew that county officials had expressed interest in a data-sharing agreement as far back as 2014. But since she’d seen no community engagement around the idea, she’d assumed that officials had dropped it.

“I had no idea it was moving forward,” LaBlanc said. “Why was I learning from a newspaper report? Why was this becoming public when it had already been presented to elected officials? How could this be anything but racial profiling with high-tech tools?”

The agreement also laid groundwork for a countywide “integrated information-sharing platform” that would have identified local children exhibiting risk factors. Erica Schumacher, Strategic Initiatives and Community Relations Director with the Ramsey County Attorney’s office, said that the plan was for families of children flagged as at-risk to be contacted by “community-based, culturally grounded folks” and offered help and resources.

Laura Jones, a criminal justice reform researcher and the mother of two St. Paul public schools students, said that offers of help tied to a risk score inevitably would have felt stigmatizing and invasive for many families.

“We could do predictive analytics to predict your risk of alcoholism, looking at family history, what books you’re checking out of the library, and then offer help,” Jones said. “But how would that feel to you?”

Jones said there’s strong evidence that large-scale predictive analytics programs don’t work. In late 2017, Illinois officials pulled the plug on a $366,000 program that tried to identify children at risk of abuse. The program simply “didn’t seem to be predicting much,” as a top official put it. Instead, it overwhelmed caseworkers by assigning thousands of children high-risk scores, yet failed to flag parents who ended up killing children.

Opponents of the Ramsey County plan also raised concerns about the danger of families’ private data being misused or exposed. Those concerns were heightened by news of an Aug. 2018 data breach that may have affected as many as 500 Ramsey County social service clients

‘Racial profiling with high-tech tools’
Khulia Pringle, a community activist, educator and mother of a former St. Paul Public Schools student, said it bothered her that the data used to flag children and families would have come from institutions with a documented history of punishing children of color more severely than white children.

Pringle said she might support a data-sharing plan if “the system was collecting data to self-correct itself, of the racism, the sexism, all the -isms, as opposed to trying to correct families and students. As a black person, I don’t trust any entity that’s going to collect biased data on me to identify me for needing services.”

At a Nov. 2018 educational summit co-hosted by the Coalition to Stop the Cradle to Prison Algorithm, Yeshambeit Milner of the national group Data for Black Lives said that all too often U.S. officials are attempting to implement powerful new information technologies without adequately addressing the ways that racial bias skews data and interpretive algorithms.

“In this country, we don’t have crime data,” said Milner. “We have arrest data. And who is predominantly arrested? Black people … We’re missing data on white crime. So when you’re making an algorithm to predict crime and the only data that you have is on arrests or school suspensions or who’s interacting with the child welfare system, there is a lot of missing data.”

Milner emphasized that public officials have a long history of using incomplete, inaccurate data to perpetuate harmful stereotypes about poor people of color.

“That history and those values – welfare queen, super-predator, crack baby myth – are all embedded into these algorithms,” said Milner. “In the age of big data, if we’re not aware of this history, we risk repeating it.”

Opponents insisted community engagement wasn’t authentic
The origins of this joint powers agreement go back to discussions that officials had roughly five years ago about the need to improve Ramsey County’s outreach to vulnerable young people

In early 2015, through efforts led by County Attorney John Choi’s office, the county, the city of St. Paul and the St. Paul school district won a $161,847 Community Innovation grant from the Bush Foundation to fund community engagement to create a more coordinated model of service delivery.

One of the key project outcomes of the grant proposal listed was a “community-defined plan … to effectively connect high-risk youth to services.” Another outcome listed was creation of a “formal data-sharing arrangement that will allow for a comprehensive view of youth.”

Officials enlisted Marnita’s Table, a Minneapolis organization that specializes in facilitating conversations between policymakers and marginalized communities, to host community engagement sessions from early 2015 to early 2016. The sessions focused on open-ended questions of why so many children were falling through the cracks and ending up in the criminal justice system and what could be done to help young people succeed.

According to LaBlanc, Pringle and others who attended the Marnita’s Table discussions, officials didn’t mention a large-scale data-sharing plan or give participants any opportunity to vet such a plan. Pfefferkorn said that participants also never called for a data-sharing agreement to predict future criminal justice system involvement.

Instead, community members suggested that officials should do a better job of including community members in decisions that impacted their lives. They also suggested better funding for youth programs, more safe spaces for youth, and more recruitment of teachers and mentors of color.

Helping educators recognize and nurture students and their strengths more, instead of approaching students as problems to be fixed, was another priority – a suggestion at odds with officials’ eventual proposed strategy of using data to measure students’ risk of getting into trouble.

Schumacher said that in April 2016, “right on the heels” of the Marnita’s Table discussions, officials discovered an opportunity to partner with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency to conduct research on risk factors associated with future criminal justice system involvement. It seemed, according to Schumacher, like the perfect way to “marry” a wide range of data to what they’d just heard from community members.

After the National Council on Crime and Development selected Ramsey County as one of two study sites, the county attorney’s office spent over a year drafting the joint powers agreement document to provide a legal framework for the study. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency committed to covering their staff costs for doing the research.

Schumacher said at this stage in the project’s development, officials intentionally chose not to publicize their efforts.

“There’s been a tradition within systems of [government officials] going out to communities, saying we’re going to do things, and then never having that happen, which breeds distrust. So we wanted to wait until we legally could move forward with this.”

Schumacher said officials had always planned to go back to the community and say, “‘OK, here’s feedback we got from folks in our community. Here’s input that we got from the data from the study … Now what should we do, and what should it look like, how should it operate?’”

Meanwhile, from late June 2016 to February 2017, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi also convened a Community Task Force on Safe Schools to respond to increased reports of students physically attacking school staff, as well as patterns of teachers and administrators punishing, suspending and expelling black students at disproportionately high rates.

Many of the task force’s recommendations echoed suggestions from the Marnita’s Table input sessions. They included investing in leadership and job opportunities for youth, enlisting faith-based organizations to provide mentoring and transportation for students and hiring teachers who reflected diverse student populations.

The task force did recommend creating a countywide reporting system to allow schools and communities to compare data and facilitate better coordination of services across systems. But the task force did not suggest using data to predict which students were most at-risk.

A little over a year later, when representatives from the county attorney’s office, Ramsey County, and the St. Paul school district were drumming up the support of elected officials for the data-sharing plan, they mentioned the Marnita’s Table conversations and the Safe Schools task force as part of a “transparent and inclusive” community engagement process. Those mentions upset many community members who’d participated in those discussions.

“When I first heard [that the joint powers agreement] is what came out of my recommendations, I was pissed … I never in my life thought that me going out, talking to John Choi, going to these community engagement meetings, was going to present a situation where they were going to come out with a solution that I’m fighting against,” said Pringle.

Three members of a community response panel at the Nov. 2018 educational summit. From left to right: Susan Montgomery, Erica Valliant, Ebony Young. Photo courtesy of Tafari Melisizwe.

Community wants more than “listening sessions” from the county
In late Aug. 2018, the Coalition to Oppose the Cradle to Prison Algorithm sent a letter expressing concerns about the joint powers agreement to city and county officials and St. Paul school board members. The letter’s co-signers included the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood, Foster Alum Minnesota, the Midwest Center for School Transformation, InEquality, Voices for Racial Justice and the American Indian Prison Project.

The letter opposed “diverting resources toward study and surveillance rather than services.”

It also charged, “The Ramsey County Attorney sold [the joint powers agreement] to elected officials as a ‘prevention strategy,’ and misleadingly pointed to recommendations from previous community and task force gatherings.”

A few weeks later, on Oct. 5, 2018, Mayor Carter, St. Paul Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard and Ramsey County Commission Chair Jim McDonough responded jointly to the African American Leadership Council, the St. Paul NAACP and the St. Paul Black Ministerial Alliance, organizations that had also raised concerns.

The officials’ letter said, “[I]n response to the feedback we have heard from you, and others in our community, … we have decided to revise our timeline to allow for more community input.”

Carter, Gothard and McDonough did not respond in writing to the Coalition to Stop the Cradle to Prison Algorithm, answer requests from the group for a face-to-face meeting, or acknowledge the group’s demand for an end to the data-sharing plan.

Meanwhile, Ramsey County-St. Paul Public Health Director Anne Barry was holding face-to-face meetings with concerned community members and organizations and gathering feedback. Barry heard that many people didn’t trust that a new round of listening sessions would yield a better outcome, unless officials first addressed problems with the original engagement process.

Barry also said she understood why people were objecting to the proposed use of individually identifiable data. Barry believes there can be great value in aggregated data – that is, data collected about a large number of people and presented so that personal information can’t be traced back to a single individual. She added that aggregated data in her experience as a former public health commissioner for Minnesota is best used when identifying and understanding systemic problems, not individualized ones.

In an interview a few days after the press conference at City Hall, Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough said officials had launched the data-sharing initiative with high hopes that it would make a difference. But “in the end,” he said, “we’ve gotta listen to our community. The community just didn’t feel that they were engaged properly.”

For McDonough, public outcry against the plan “elevated that, especially in some parts of our community, we’ve got a lot of work to do, to establish trust and build that relationship.”

Pfefferkorn said she and other Coalition members are prepared to work alongside officials “to do what’s best for our kids.” But first, she said, she’d like to see officials engage community members and participate in a restorative process to repair harm.

She’d also like elected officials to commit to being better-informed about emerging technologies and their pitfalls before making decisions that directly impact their constituencies.

For Pfefferkorn, the political process behind the joint powers agreement flagged the need for elected officials, policymakers and community members to learn more about big data, predictive analytics and algorithms and their impact on larger social policies in schools and the juvenile justice system.

She added, “[The] conversation really needs to be, what is the role of governance on this and what is the role for community?”

More chances to engage coming up
A community forum on big data, predictive analytics and algorithms in education is scheduled at Macalester College on February 26, 4-6 PM, hosted by the Midwest Center for School Transformation, Twin Cities Innovation Alliance, Macalester College’s education department, and the Coalition to Stop the Cradle to Prison Algorithm. The event will be held in the college’s DeWitt Wallace Library in the Harmon Room and is free and open to the public.

St. Paul and Ramsey County officials have not yet scheduled community input meetings regarding youth interventions, but meetings will be listed on the Ramsey County calendar once dates and meeting locations are determined.

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