Paul Gordon Collier- The FBI have released a study that has been sent to American High Schools called “Preventing Violent Extremism in Schools.” The study has raised concerns from both the left and the right that it is creating an unsafe, unsecure environment for students, and also creating a fundamental mistrust of teachers among students.
The report identifies a plan of actions for teachers and staff in schools to identify students who might be at risk of becoming ‘violent extremists’ and taking a course of action to either ‘disrupt’ their path towards violent extremism, or, if the threat of violence seems immanent, law enforcement intervention to prevent the student from taking violent action
The report identifies both foreign and domestic violent extremism, using language that is, at best, open to interpretation. For instance, here is how the report describes domestic violent extremism:
“Domestic violent extremism is defined as individuals or groups attempting to advance social or political beliefs through force or violence and in violation of federal law. The FBI recognizes several domestic violent extremism movements, including but not limited to white supremacists, animal rights and eco-terrorists, and antigovernment or radical separatist groups.”
This language is similar to a report offered in 2012 from the Department of Homeland Security http://www.start.umd.edu/sites/default/files/files/publications/research_briefs/LaFree_Bersani_HotSpotsOfUSTerrorism.pdf that describes ‘right wing extremism as being “(people) who believes that one’s personal and/or national ‘way of life’ is under attack and is either already lost or that the threat is imminent”
That report later elaborates that ‘right wing terrorists” include those who ‘revere liberty and are suspicious of a centralized government.”
From the perspective of the left, the concern is that the FBI is creating a playbook for teachers to target Muslim children for an extra level of scrutiny, one that will create a chilling effect among the American Muslim community, an effect that will generate a bad relationship between the American Muslim community and the schools they send their kids to.
From the perspective of the right, the language used in the report, given other reports from the Department of Homeland Security (as cited above), suggest that views which lean conservative, even libertarian, could be seen as ‘extremist’ and put a kid in the crosshairs of overzealous teachers.
Others, from both the left and the right, assert that the report is simply a common-sense approach to being aware of potential threats of violence by high school kids at a time when such acts are perceived as being commonplace.
Here, the report makes a very broad definition of violent extremism:
“Youth are embracing many forms of violent extremism; those perpetrated by terrorist organizations or other domestic violent extremist movements, to those maintaining biases towards others due to their race, religion, or sexual orientation.”
The report encourages educators to observe students and report on suspicious behaviors so that a disengagement process can be initiated:
“Our educators are in a unique position to affect change, impart affirmative messaging, or facilitate intervention activities due to their daily interactions with students. These interactions allow for observing and assessing concerning behaviors and communications—students embracing extremist ideologies and progressing on a trajectory toward violence.”
Some part of the report addresses the very nature of speech itself in, again, language that is, at best left up to a wide range of interpretations:
“Schools should remain a healthy environment for learning, personal growth, physical and cognitive development, and not be infused with extremist or hateful rhetoric.”
The report dentifies domestic terrorism as not just acts of violence, but “hate-based activities.” What specifically defines “hate-based activities is not given in the report. The report goes on to suggest that the adults (by implication, the parents) are a source for the creation of violent extremism:
“As some adults embrace domestic violent extremist ideologies, their beliefs can permeate family norms, oftentimes influencing their children. This dynamic fosters biases leading to hatred and intolerance, and drives the need for action.”
The report elaborates on this familial influence:
“Causation Model of Juvenile Delinquency – a child is vulnerable to detrimental influences from familial, socioeconomic, educational experiences, or ideological factors, often resulting in criminal deviant behavior. Once exposed to dysfunctional norms, the child begins to exhibit behavior that is contrary to social expectations.”
As the teacher is encouraged to take a ‘holistic’ approach to understanding the student (covered later in this article), they must, by implication, also be aware of the belief systems of the parents of the students to assess if that student is at risk, as can be seen in this part of the report:
“Youth embracing domestic extremist movements (across any extremist ideology) are sometimes raised in an environment where racial, religious, or cultural bias is viewed as acceptable. This results in behaviors influenced by family involvement. Youth growing up in these environments are exposed to extremism at a very young age, which permeates their values, and aids the formulation of radical beliefs. Youth view these forms of extremism as family norms, although they are not acceptable in mainstream society. This dynamic perpetuates the cycle of hatred and intolerance.”
With language such as “bias is viewed as acceptable” and “acceptable in mainstream society”, many criticize the report as using “Orwellian” language that, again, at best, is left to a wide range of interpretations. For instance, here is the definition of a hate crime as given by the report:
“Hate crimes: A hate crime is violence or the threat of violence based on a victim’s actual or perceived race, national origin, religion, or other protected classification [which the document later identifies as race, religion, color, national origin, gender, disability or sexual orientation].”
The report does offer a clear distinction between ‘protected speech’ and illegal incitement here:
“The difference between protected speech and illegal incitement can be a very fine line. Espousing anti-U.S. sentiment or extremist rhetoric is not a crime and is protected First Amendment activity. The issue is not if the individual voiced his/her support, but rather has advocated imminent violence in support of an extremist organization and that violence is likely to occur as a result”
However, while the report offers a clear distinction of protected speech and illegal incitement, given that the course of action outlined by this report is to disengage a student from a path towards violent extremism, the threshold for beginning that intervention does not begin at the moment that ‘protected speech’ becomes illegal incitement, but well before the speech ever crosses that clear, legal boundary.”
The report does offer a caveat for teachers who may be tempted to engage in some form of profiling as a result of this program:
“The FBI does not advocate the application of any psychological or demographic “profiles” or check lists of indicators to identify students on a pathway to radicalization. Rather, the FBI endorses taking a holistic approach in considering the totality of concerning behaviors in the appropriate context, assessing the likelihood an individual is progressing on a trajectory to radicalization and/or future violent action in furtherance of an extremist cause.”
However, the very use of the word ‘holistic’ implies, at the very least, a level of proactive investigation of a student’s school and family life that goes well beyond a teacher’s traditional role. The teacher’s very own presuppositions might make that teacher more prone to target students who are Muslim, or Christian, or left-leaning, or right-leaning, etc, depending on how the teacher views those groups in the first place.
The report appears to give reinforcement to critics on this very point when it cites a 2000 FBI School Shooter Study:
“The 2000 FBI School Shooter study suggests a student’s personality, family, school, and social dynamics must be analyzed by school administrators and counselors to determine how best to respond to concerning behaviors or communications. Recognizing behavior or communications indicative of radicalization leading to violence allows for a community’s preemptive action, including intervention or disruption, prior to mobilization.”
The very trigger for beginning a disengagement process is made clear at the end of the report:
“The disengagement process begins when observations lead to contemplating two key questions: Who should I tell and When? The FBI advocates for the empowerment of school districts to affect change when concerning behavior or communications are exhibited by an atrisk student.”
The keyphrase is this, ‘when concerning behavior or communications are exhibited by an atrisk student.’ And if a teacher feels a student is engaged in that vaguely defined behavior, they are to “leverage community resources to alert them to these behaviors and communications, commencing the disengagement process.”
This will mean involving community leaders, including law enforcement, faith leaders, business leaders, anyone the school deems relevant to aiding in the disengagement process for that student. In other words, if your child exhibits ‘concerning behavior,” community leaders will be approached about aiding in a process to disengage your child from that path towards violent extremism.
Have we portrayed this report accurately? Read it for yourself. Then, let us know what you think of this report. Do you think this plan of action creates a climate of mistrust between teachers and students? Do you think this plan could potentially put students in the crosshairs who don’t belong to the accepted belief systems of the teachers who are called upon to initiate a path to disengagement?
Are people making much ado about nothing? Is this simply a commonsense way to identify atrisk youth and protect them and others from harm? Let us know. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear what you think.
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