Can Better Data Infrastructure Prevent School Violence? We Think So.

Some states want to use federal grant money to put more guns in schools in order to prevent another episode of violence like the one that we saw in Parkland, Florida. It’s a controversial idea and one that favors grand drama over real thoughtful solutions. While it won’t grab national headlines, we could actually prevent more violence and protect more students for less money with investments into information-sharing technology.

There’s no way to know with certainty what could have prevented the tragedy in Parkland, but we do know one thing: there was enough information out there to paint a troubling picture of a young person in crisis with a desperate need for supportive services. Nikolas Cruz, who  returned to his high school armed and killed seventeen people in six minutes, was known to adults as a child in need of additional support and services.

Acting on that information is a different story. Alarmingly, we have recently learned that the adults (like psychiatrists, teachers, and law enforcement officials) who held pieces of Cruz’s story weren’t talking to each other, and there was no system in place for them to share information securely, quickly, and accurately.

Part of the problem is legal: health care, education, and child welfare privacy laws constrain the ways in which systems can share personally identifying information about young people in their care. At school safety panels earlier this summer, the Attorney General and other federal leaders suggested that these statutes are interpreted too broadly and that restricted information-sharing impedes the ability of local authorities to quickly deliver services to students in crisis.

But an important — and overlooked — part of the problem is technical. Even where there are data-sharing agreements in place, and high-quality service programs available to meet every need (and enough resources to go around), databases that track services for young people are quite literally disconnected from each other and unable to connect those services to the kids who need them. Legacy data warehouses within care agencies and schools create data silos that are nearly impenetrable. Not only do systems not talk across their bureaucratic borders, they are often incompatible with their counterparts in the next city or a neighboring county.

And even where the technical infrastructures are more modern, they rarely hold all of the information that exists or hold it in a way that is useful for providers. In fact, many systems still keep paper records or require hard copies of requests for information. As a result, direct-care staff, like nurses and school counselors, end up spending much of their days tracking down paperwork, faxing things back and forth, and cold-calling other offices instead of working with young people.

Local data systems generally come in two flavors: proprietary and homemade. The proprietary versions are purchased from vendors and are intentionally not compatible with competing products.The homemade versions are those developed by internal information technology departments to serve the needs of that single agency. The Ed-Fi Data Standard was created by technology experts to address this problem within education agencies, but it is still not fully adopted, and it does not provide support for information-sharing with other child-serving public agencies.

Some municipal governments have created special information sharing tools for subgroups of students, like Foster Focus, a tool created and shared by Sacramento County’s Office of Education to facilitate quick records transfer for foster youth. And third party efforts like the Silicon Valley Regional Data Trust in California’s Bay Area, ProUnitas in Houston, and Student1 in Austin have begun to pilot data systems and technology products that begin to address the issues of real-time data sharing.

Despite these local efforts, no tool yet exists to truly support vital information-sharing across child-serving public agencies. So my colleague Justin Trinidad and I designed a model for the future. We first talked with leaders, students, and staff across the country over the last year to better understand their unmet needs. In conjunction with a group of data scientists, agency staff, developers, engineers, and nonprofit organizations, we took the best ideas that exist and created ContinuityCounts Services, a model for an online tool that has the capacity to aggregate and share real-time information about students with the adults who are working to support them.

The policy constraints are significant, and we would be wise to not underestimate them, but the technology exists and we can solve this problem. Children’s lives are at stake; we need to get to work.

One thought on “Can Better Data Infrastructure Prevent School Violence? We Think So.

  1. Ann Meese

    Good work Justin and Hallie. I have served school districts in rural Missouri , in suburban Chicago (Roselle), in two college towns (Columbia MO and West Lafayette IN), and in St. Louis City public schools. How often I had wished to connect with public service agencies to provide service for a kid and/or the kid’s family. Prevention is so essential. I hope there will be funders to help pay for designing such a program. Also I hope state legislators will work with state departments of education to encourage partnership with social service agencies, the medical and/or mental health practitioners without running afoot of legal prohibitions.

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