EDITORIAL: CPS, social media and curbing trouble among students

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The Twitter icon. CPS monitors social media of students to ward off conflict that could turn violent. | AP Photo/Matt Rourke

In 2015, Chicago Public Schools officials quietly began checking out social media for signs of trouble among students that could lead to serious violence.

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other popular platforms can be breeding grounds for teen conflict that quickly escalates from an online beef into a real-life fistfight, or worse. Some CPS principals estimate that more than 90 percent of fights between students start on social media.

EDITORIAL

It’s not just a Chicago problem, either. Districts around the country are keeping an eye on social media, spawning a new cottage industry for software with sophisticated algorithms that mine platforms for signs of bullying and other conflict.

CPS focused its pilot monitoring program on 24 high schools that had problems with gangs and other violence, according to an investigation by ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ.

Over time, hundreds of students whose public posts were flagged — perhaps for photos with gang signs or what looked like guns, or for threatening to beat up a classmate — were summoned to “interventions” with school officials who steered them to counseling, mentoring or part-time jobs.

CPS insists the initiative was sorely needed. “We were having lots of issues with social media,” Jadine Chou, head of CPS safety and security, told us. “Students were posting dangerous things and it was escalating into fights or worse yet, into incidents of serious violence.”

A University of Chicago Crime Lab study found solid evidence that students benefited from the initiative.

“Students attending participating high schools were at lower risk of being shooting victims; experienced fewer misconduct incidents and out-of-school suspensions; and attended school for several additional days, relative to students in non-participating high schools,” the report stated.

Yet critics have raised concerns that CPS ought to heed.

One major red flag: Calling police to take part in the “interventions” without a parent present, which the ProPublica and WBEZ investigation found happened in at least 87 instances.

In dozens of other cases, records were too sketchy for the reporters to determine whether police were called in.

Getting police involved is especially tricky in communities of color where over-policing is a concern, one expert pointed out. Most of the 24 schools involved were in African-American and Latino neighborhoods.

“Call a parent first, call a social worker or counselor,” Desmond Patton, a Columbia University professor who has done research on social media and youth in Chicago and elsewhere, told us. “Let them be the first call.”

Here’s our view: Police should never question a minor without a parent or guardian present, period. If a student’s post is an “imminent safety threat” that warrants a call to police, then parents should be made aware of that first.

It’s critical, as Ed Yohnka of the American Civil Liberties Union told us, that parents know about the monitoring policy from the start.

“You have people rummaging around in social media of kids without telling them that, not telling parents, or making clear that this is the policy,” Yohnka said.

With the police potentially involved, critics of CPS’ social media monitoring efforts also wonder whether students’ names might end up in the Chicago Police Department’s problematic gang database.

“Police can record [the interaction] in whatever way they want to,” Yohnka said. “Is this a portal into the database?”

CPS seems confident that won’t happen. We’re not. A written agreement that forbids CPD from doing so would be wise.

CPS says it’s planning an information campaign about the program, which is still up and running, without the software — CPS scrapped it — and with just one analyst who relies on tips from students and school officials about social media posts that signal trouble.

CPS has an obligation to do what it can to curb gang violence, fighting, bullying and other student conflict. There’s no reason to scrap the program. They defend it, and so would we.

It’s all in how it’s done.

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