A project calling for the use of data to identify students who could someday run afoul of the law may be in jeopardy.

Opposition is growing among critics who say the St. Paul area effort — designed to help steer kids from the criminal justice system — could racially profile children as "future criminals" through the use of information they say is biased.

Last spring, city, county and school officials in Ramsey County agreed to form a joint powers board to oversee the collection and sharing of data from the respective jurisdictions in order to predict which students could be at-risk — and get them the help they need.

The votes to create the board came over the objections of social justice advocates who describe the potential use of both school district and law enforcement data as unprecedented in scope. They also fear the project would stigmatize those students targeted for intervention.

As voices swelled, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter informed the city's black leaders he was hitting pause on the project to gather more community input.

Joining him were St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard and County Board Chairman Jim McDonough.

Outreach efforts are expected to continue into March. But Anne Barry, the city-county health official overseeing the public listening sessions, said recently she plans to recommend that the jurisdictions abandon the data side of the endeavor.

"Predictive analytics do not get us where we want to go," she said.

Opponents of the project have organized as the Coalition to Stop the Cradle to Prison Algorithm. They have hosted a webinar and all-day summit and now are working on a policy brief about preventive measures that Barry hopes will help answer the question: "What is it we're not doing enough of?"

County Attorney John Choi, whose office took the lead on the project, said in a statement Friday that it was a "moral imperative" to connect youth to community-based services to help them succeed in school and in life and to avoid contact with the justice system.

Proactive investments were needed, he said, to ensure "our nation-leading disparities" between white students and students of color do not persist.

"If there are better ways to accomplish this for all youth without the use of predictive analytics, we are all for it," Choi said.

The possible change in direction was welcomed by Laura LaBlanc, a coalition leader, who now wants the joint powers board to go away.

Hers is not a happy group.

LaBlanc was on hand last spring when the St. Paul school board was asked by Choi's office to sign onto the joint powers agreement. She tried to get the board to delay action.

In the end, the board voted unanimously in favor of a joint powers board — as did the St. Paul City Council, Ramsey County Board and the leaders of the Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate School District.

Under the proposal, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency would receive data from each jurisdiction to determine factors that predict school success and juvenile justice involvement. It also would develop an integrated data-sharing platform to allow the jurisdictions to make their interventions.

Jeanelle Foster, a St. Paul school board member, said then that being proactive, and finding ways not to incarcerate juveniles, was something worth pursuing, but only if the project is done right.

She now is a district appointee to the joint powers board.

But that group has yet to meet, and Barry said she'd advise against it until the community outreach is finished.

The coalition is firm in its stance.

It objects to the sharing of data that it says could include everything from a student's interactions with police to school suspension and attendance data to a family's involvement with child protection services.

Efforts to take that information and determine factors that predict criminal involvement also would be biased from the start, critics say.

They point to the disproportionate percentages of black men in the prison system and students of color being suspended and expelled from school.

"Why double down on that data?" LaBlanc said.

Many parents also could be expected to resist being told their children were destined for trouble.

LaBlanc said the coalition is willing to work on its policy brief and could deliver it in about a month. But she said the group is waiting for elected officials to respond to its concerns and has a sharp word of advice for the joint powers board.

"Dissolve," she said.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109