A controversial agreement between the city of St. Paul, Ramsey County and St. Paul Public Schools to join forces to identify "at-risk" young people has ended before it began.
Leaders from the city, county and school district announced Monday that they are dissolving a joint powers agreement that would have allowed them to share data and coordinate services. The goal was to prevent young people from entering the criminal justice system by identifying problems early on and intervening, but critics argued that data could be used to racially profile children and mark them as "future criminals" from an early age.
"We have heard loud and clear a set of concerns about aspects of this project, including the joint powers agreement itself, and specifically the concern over the use of data this agreement allows," Mayor Melvin Carter said at a news conference. "We are here to say that we have listened and we have heard you."
Carter, Ramsey County Board Chairman Jim McDonough and Superintendent Joe Gothard said they will continue working toward their goal of sharing resources to identify children and families who need help before they're in the middle of a crisis. In coming months, the city, county and school district will hold community engagement events to figure out how to move forward.
"We are here to reaffirm the commitment we made from the beginning to honor and hold up the moral imperative together to improve outcomes for our youth," McDonough said. "Beginning today, we shift our focus toward developing a new framework and a new covenant on behalf of our youth and families."
After years of planning, the school board, City Council, County Board and leaders of the Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate School District voted last year to create a joint powers board to oversee data from each jurisdiction. The plan was to share data with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, which would identify factors that predict involvement in the juvenile justice system and then make interventions locally.
There was a community engagement event before the joint powers agreement was approved, but it didn't translate into policy, said Anne Barry, director of St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health.
"If you line up what happened in the event and what community told us and what was in the joint powers agreement, it's not clear that you can see the relationship between the two of them," she said.
Social justice advocates soon raised concerns about the agreement, including the potential use of both school district and law enforcement data.
"Our kids are usually the ones to slide through the cracks," said Crystal Norcross, an East Side resident and parent who is American Indian. "Knowing this and seeing myself and my family having gone through the system, I kind of already knew that this wasn't going to work."
One of the biggest red flags for advocates was the use of "predictive analytics," or using data to predict students' futures.
"That formula is created by human beings that have bias," said Marika Pfefferkorn, co-founder of the Coalition to Stop the Cradle to Prison Algorithm, a group that formed to oppose the project. "To put that on a machine is to actually perpetuate that bias mechanically."
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi's office, which took the lead on the project, on Monday referred to a previous statement in which Choi called for proactive investments to reduce disparities and said "if there are better ways to accomplish this for all youth without the use of predictive analytics, we are all for it."
Officials acknowledged concerns about the project Monday, but also emphasized that different jurisdictions need to work together to address St. Paul's racial and socioeconomic disparities.
"We still know that our communities face disparities that are embarrassing and all too predictable," Carter said. "We have failed our children, and we all know that working together we can do more for St. Paul children and families than we can working separately."
The dates, times and locations of community engagement events will be announced in March, according to a news release from the city. Community members and advocates say they plan to stay involved, but they remain skeptical.
Talaya Tolefree, an educator who sent her children to St. Paul Public Schools and attended district schools herself, said parents and advocates are worried their voices will be ignored.
"We want to understand how the officials will work with community in a positive and restorative way," she said. "How are we going to be able to restore the harm that's already been caused?"