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Chicago Public School System's Anti-Violence Plan Pins Its Hope on Data Analysis

10/06/2009 -The head of Chicago's public school system, Ron Huberman, is hoping data analysis can do what traditional security policies could not: protect those students most at risk of becoming victims of violent crime and then flood them with adult supervision,reports The New York Times.

Huberman, a former police officer who was also theprincipal architect of Chicago's Citizen and Law Enforcement Analysis and Reporting (CLEAR) system, is bringing his fondness for data analysis to his new job running the city's public schools.

Financed by federal stimulus grants for two years, the $60 million plan uses a formula gleaned from an analysis of more than 500 students who were shot over the last several years to predict the characteristics of potential future victims, including when and where they might be attacked. While other big city school districts, including New York, have tried to focus security efforts on preventing violence, this plan goes further by identifying the most vulnerable students and saturating them with adult attention, including giving each of them a paid job and a local advocate who would be on call for support 24 hours a day.

From the study of the 500 shootings, Mr. Huberman said officials know that deadly violent outbursts are not truly random. The students at highest risk of violence, by statistics, are most likely to be black, male, without a stable living environment, in special education, skipping an average of 42 percent of school days at neighborhood and alternative schools, and having a record of in-school behavioral flare-ups that is about eight times higher than the average student.

Attacks have typically happened beyond a two-hour window from the start and end of school — that is, late at night or very early in the morning — and blocks away from school grounds, where neighborhood boundaries press against one another.

It's that last fact that frustrates school administrators trying to protect students from violence: most of the crimes are not occurring during school hours or even on school property. Most happen when students travel to and from school each day. According to the Times, going to school is actually one of the smartest decisions Chicago public school students can make if they want to avoid violence.

This renewed effort at keeping students safe comes after the savage murder of 16-year-old Derrion Albert, who was beaten to death after crossing paths with two rival gangs he did not belong to while walking home from school. Albert was the third student to die violently this year and the 67th since 2007. Nevertheless, the data wouldn't have singled Albert out for special attention. He was an honor-roll student on the football team. 

While Huberman agrees the system would not have identified Albert, he does believe the data may have brought attention to at least some of his attackers. A little intervention going a long way seems to be the philosophy he's betting on to reduce these types of tragedies.

The difficulty now for Huberman is rolling out a program that needs massive coordination and collaboration between city departments and agencies and local nonprofits and community groups to work. Another challenge remains as well: getting the 10,000 students identified as at-risk to buy-in. Right now the major incentive is a part-time job.

It'll be interesting to see if that's enough of a lure.

♦ Photo of a Chicago Public Schools' sign byoceandesetoiles/Flickr