This is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ Chicago.

In January 2017, after a social media analyst for the Chicago Public Schools reviewed the Facebook profile of a Roosevelt High School student and began to suspect he might be in a gang, a police officer was summoned to the school to conduct an intervention. There wasn’t any imminent threat of violence, but the officer and a school district security official met with the student. They asked if he was in a gang.

“That is my business,” the student replied, according to a report from the intervention.

The officer, a member of the Chicago Police Department’s Gang School Safety Team, told the student he needed to be more respectful. The student said he was not in a gang but did hang around gang members.

The officer asked for their names, but the student wouldn’t give them. The officer asked if the student was considering joining a gang. He said he wasn’t sure. The student, the report concludes, “seemed to not be motivated and provided very short answers.”

Over the past four school years, more than 700 CPS students have been called into interventions like this one based on social media activity that points to their possible gang involvement. The interventions are one result of a $2.2 million award the district received in 2014 through the U.S. Department of Justice’s Comprehensive School Safety Initiative, which provides grants for violence prevention efforts.

The grant covered salaries for two intelligence analysts and social media monitoring software to analyze students’ online conversations, though officials stopped using the software in 2017. Jadine Chou, the school district’s chief of safety and security, said the analysts used keyword searches to find threats at the program’s target schools, rather than plugging in individual students’ names.

Funding for the program ran out after 2018, but district officials said they plan to continue it in some manner, saying it keeps kids safe and gives them much-needed support.

“It’s a program we’re very proud of,” Chou said. “Our main goal is to redirect students to a positive path.”

But the approach has raised concerns, in part because most students and parents weren’t told about the program or that school officials would be taking on a greater role in monitoring students’ lives. And it expanded the role of the Gang School Safety Team, a small police unit created in 2008 with a somewhat narrow mission: to intervene after a young person gets shot. After a shooting, officers show up at the victim’s school, seeking to ease tensions and head off retaliation. With the program, officers went into schools before violence erupted.

Monitoring can save lives if it’s done right, said Desmond Patton, an associate professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work who studies social media and gang violence in Chicago. But it can also venture into over-policing, what Patton describes as a sort of virtual stop and frisk that disproportionately targets people of color.

“Oftentimes when we talk about threats and violence and trauma, we are really speaking about black and brown communities,” Patton said. “So we are not zooming in on the young people at Jones College Prep or Walter Payton or Northside,” top Chicago high schools with more white students than black students.

Of the 24 schools in the monitoring program as of last year, 16 are majority black and five are majority Hispanic. Most are on the South or West sides. Forty-six percent of all CPS schools are majority black, according to the latest available data.

“It feels like a surprising invasion of privacy,” said Carisa Parker, whose daughter is a freshman at Morgan Park High School, one of the target schools. Though she has no indication her daughter’s social media activities have been monitored, she said the district owes it to parents to explain how and why her Far Southwest Side school and the others were chosen.

“These Officers Just Care So Much”

Knowing that violence between students often can be traced to social media posts, CPS officials pursued the grant as one way to head it off. Some principals say such posts play a role in more than 90 percent of fights between students, according to a report on the program by the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab, which helps cities study violence reduction efforts.

In 2015, the district began the pilot, known as “Connect and Redirect to Respect,” at 16 elementary and high schools to monitor students’ public-facing social media. It eventually grew to 24 schools, covering some 25,000 students, according to the Crime Lab. If students were found to have posted gang-related material, then district security specialists and school administrators would meet with the student and link them with mentors, counselors and part-time or summer jobs.

In cases where the student posed with a gun or appeared to threaten violence, officers from the Gang School Safety Team were brought in. Officers were also present in some cases where no gun was involved, incident reports show, and they weren’t called in every time there was a gun.