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Letting Software Make the Call

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Earlier this year three Chicago high schools--Whitney Young, Morgan Park, and Von Steuben--joined 22 others across the country to test Mosaic-2000, a software program that tries to identify potentially dangerous situations. Gavin de Becker, Inc., a threat assessment agency based in California, originally developed the software to be used in the workplace, in the home, and in protecting public figures. But this fall Mosaic will be made available to schools--at a cost of $100 a month--in conjunction with the state's attorney and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The program has taken quite a beating from school officials, psychologists, and the media, who have questioned its consistency, debated how to use the resulting data, and mislabeled the software as a tool for "profiling" students. Even education secretary Richard Riley has weighed in on Mosaic: quoted in the Washington Post, he told a group of Chicago school counselors, "While we must work to prevent school violence, we cannot rely on mechanical profiling of students. We simply cannot put student behaviors into a formula to come up with the appropriate response." But others have praised Mosaic as a way of helping school administrators combat youth violence. "Ten years ago 'school shooting' wasn't a figure of speech, but today it is," says Pam Paziotopoulos, director of public affairs for the Cook County state's attorney. "We thought we'd be remiss if we didn't get involved with Mosaic-2000. Here is an opportunity to get schools and possibly other agencies another diagnostic tool that they could use once someone does act out."

Mosaic guides the user through a series of 42 multiple-choice questions about a particular student, gauging the severity of his victimization, the availability of guns in the home, any threats he might have made, and so on. The questions were developed by more than 200 experts in education, counseling, psychology, parenting, threat assessment, law enforcement, and the judiciary--and by students themselves. "Imagine that you sought the opinion of an intelligent, experienced expert practitioner, who in turn reviewed relevant research, and then sought the opinions of a hundred other experts," posits the software's Web site (www.Mosaic2000.com). "Whatever validity you would assign to that opinion, you can assign to Mosaic." Using the data supplied, the software creates a comprehensive understanding of the student. There's no numeric ranking, no suggested course of action. "Mosaic is not a computer program," asserts the Web page. "Rather, it is a method--part of which is computer assisted."

The term profiling has been thrown around liberally in discussions of Mosaic, but the software's developer draws a clear distinction: "Police investigators searching for a suspect who has not been identified sometimes develop a profile of the kind of person they postulate he will turn out to be, i.e., 'A white male in his mid-thirties who drives a sports car.' Mosaic, on the other hand, guides assessments of actual situations and actual behavior by known individuals." 60 Minutes had to retract a story that used the term in reference to the software. "You do profiling when you don't know who the offender is and it just shoots out the answer," explains Paziotopoulos. "This program

doesn't even ask any demographic questions like ethnicity, age, or area where the person lives. That's got nothing to do with what this is all about, so I don't think some people have taken the time to learn about what it does do."

Michael Furlong of the graduate program in education at the University of California at Santa Barbara agrees that Mosaic is not a profiling tool: "You can call it what you want to call it, but when I went through the training, the first page asked the name of the student." However, he does have misgivings about the "unintended consequences" of the program, like misuse by school administrators. John Williams of the youth services program in Oak Park has tested Mosaic in his work, and while he supports its use, he agrees with Furlong on one score: "The tool is as good as the people who use it and what their intentions are." If used responsibly, the software is enacted only when a particular student poses some clear threat to his teachers and classmates. "Mosaic-2000 cannot label anyone as anything," says Gavin de Becker, Inc. "It helps assess a situation, not a student. People unfamiliar with the method may worry that principals will use Mosaic unfairly, but the objective process resists bias." Paziotopoulos argues that the program will actually defuse situations in which administrators are overreacting.

Phyllis Hodges tested Mosaic last year when she was assistant principal at Von Steuben. "Let's say, through a conversation with that student and their family, that the father mentioned his big gun rack. But if I didn't get that type of information, innocent as it may be, I wouldn't be able to answer that question." To defuse a dangerous situation, she would rely on "the relationship with the student, the relationship with the student's parents, what students might share with a counselor, and other anecdotal records that we may have." Hodges doesn't believe that any students are unreachable. "When you call a parent and the child has done something serious, parents spill their guts. They tell you a whole life story in five minutes. I am a trained counselor, and I know the probing questions that can elicit the responses I want. I tend to build relationships."

One of the "unintended consequences" Furlong worries about is that Mosaic may begin to impact such relationships. "Do you ask questions because you care about the student, or is it just for Mosaic-2000?" He's also wary about who might use the software. "Once a threat's made, somebody has to turn a key. Who gathers this information? Who is responsible for seeking this information? Do you start to compile info?" He wonders if Mosaic belongs in a school or a police station. In his opinion students should be evaluated independent of school administrators, who may have no training in violence prevention. Because there are no standards for using the software, schools might abuse it as they do zero tolerance. Some of the unintended consequences, he believes, haven't even been considered.

The software's developer points out that Mosaic is just a tool to get students the help they need, be it referral to a social services agency or immediate police intervention. "It doesn't take the place of having a lot of contact and getting the information," says Williams. "It just spits back at you what it is you put in and kind of rearranges and repackages it." He believes the program would be most helpful to untrained people who have a bad feeling about a student but can't express why. "I think the usefulness of this is that it rationalizes it for you, it makes you go through the numbers why something is off here." The front page of the brochure uses the term "artificial intuition." "There's stuff that we process in our brains without breaking it down," says Williams. "What the program does is enable you to put objective data to what might be a gut feeling."

The testing of Mosaic-2000 has been completed, and soon the software will be available to any high school in the country. Paziotopoulos notes that the state's attorney has received a number of phone calls from interested parties. "A lot of people that provide intervention are very interested, people who get referrals from the courts and other places." At a meeting held in May to discuss the testing, Hodges suggested to Gavin de Becker, Inc., that the software include a listing of possible referral sites. She would like to see it customized to the Chicago area, so that a person could easily locate resources outside the school. Yet like the others, she doesn't consider Mosaic a necessity for her own work. "I didn't need this software," she says. "In my estimation the software may be of greater assistance to those not trained in the social sciences." Paradoxically, these may be the last people using it.

--Brian Moore

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell/Jon Randolph.

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