Chicago Public Schools Denies Using Gang Database 90,000 Times

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Andrew Gill / WBEZ
CPS logo
Andrew Gill / WBEZ

Chicago Public Schools Denies Using Gang Database 90,000 Times

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Chicago Public Schools is vehemently denying its staff accessed Chicago’s gang database almost 90,000 times in the past decade, refuting a finding in a city inspector general report released Thursday. 

According to the report, the only other public agencies that queried the database more often than Chicago Public Schools were the Cook County Sheriff’s Department and the Illinois Department of Correction. The inspector general found CPS made over 87,000 queries from 2009 to October 2018. 

But CPS officials say no one from the school system had access to the gang database. They turned to the Chicago Police Department to offer an explanation for the 87,000 queries. Police said every time CPS inputted or accessed school safety plans in a CPD database it somehow was counted as a gang database query.

In a statement, Howard Ludwig, a Chicago Police Department spokesman, said, “we have no evidence of CPS accessing any gang affiliation information.”

Inspector General Joseph Ferguson said he was only informed of this explanation on Thursday, even though the CPD knew of his findings for months. School district officials consistently told the inspector general that its staff didn’t use the gang database, but they did not try to figure out, until now, why the gang database data said otherwise.

Until this issue was raised on Thursday, the police department did not refute any of the the inspector general’s findings. 

Ferguson said while the explanation is plausible, it would have to be verified through a forensic audit. Further, he said that it might be one explanation, but “it alone is not sufficient.”

The so-called gang database is a collection of databases and gang intelligence tools in use for about 20 years that allow police to type in a name and learn if a person has ever been identified in a police record as a gang member and their gang affiliation.

If CPS had access to these databases, it’s questionable whether that should have been allowed. Inspector General Joe Ferguson pointed to a federal rule that says criminal intelligence information should only be disseminated “where there is a need to know and a right to know the information in performance of law enforcement activity.”

But, in his report, Ferguson noted that the police department did not comply with that rule. It also doesn’t have written data-sharing agreements with the more than 500 outside agencies allowed to use the information in the database. He recommended securing such agreements in the future. 

Todd St. Hill, with the advocacy group Black Youth Project 100, or BYP100, was shocked by how often Chicago Public Schools apparently accessed the database information. Among the 1.2 million queries by outside agencies over 10 years, 6.4 percent are from CPS. That’s about 50 times a day over a decade for a 180-day school year. 

St. Hill wants to know if anyone at CPS is using the database, and whether the users include school-based police officers and if they’re subject to any rules around database usage. 

“I think [CPS’] response leaves all those questions and many more unanswered and that should be inadequate for the way the city is run,” he said. “It is definitely an inadequate response to black and brown folks in these communities who are being directly impacted by the racial profiling and criminalization by the gang database.”

Citlali Perez, a senior at Back of the Yards High School, said she’d be worried if school staff was trying to find out whether particular students are in gang. She said that would make her feel “very violated.” 

Perez, who is a student activist with Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, said it shouldn’t matter to school staff whether a student is in a gang or not. Being in a gang, she said, does not necessarily make someone a bad student or a troublemaker. 

Activists are not only concerned about whether school staff are accessing the gang database, but also whether police officers stationed in schools, or who are invited into schools, are putting students in the database. 

The city inspector general looked at the 134,000 people who landed in the database through arrest cards. But Ferguson notes as many as 300,000 others got on it in other ways, such as after a traffic stop or when police fill out “contact cards” on someone they interact with. 

Earlier this year, an investigation by WBEZ and ProPublica uncovered a Chicago Public Schools program in which school district staff surveyed the social media of students at about two dozen schools for evidence of gang activity. If activity was found, the school district called the student in for an “intervention.” 

Police officers from a special unit called a Gang School Safety Team were brought into these interventions 87 times between 2018 and 2018. At these interventions, students were asked if they were in a gang.

In addition, Carolina Gaete, a Chicago mom and activist, believes school-based police officers, known as school resource officers, are adding student names to the database after interacting with students. Gaete, who runs Blocks Together in Humboldt Park, said she suspects this happened to her son and that it led to him being erroneously arrested last year. 

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

A previous version of this story misstated how long CPS had known about the inspector general’s findings. According to the inspector general, CPS was notified just prior to publication of the report