What Could Go Wrong With Asking Teachers To Monitor Kids for ‘Extremist’ Beliefs?

Are these the tell-tale signs of kids at risk of committing violence: An 8-year-old who wore a t-shirt saying he wanted to be like a seventh-century Muslim leader? A 17-year-old who sought to draw attention to the water shortage in Gaza by handing out leaflets? A 4-year-old who drew a picture of his dad slicing a vegetable?

Teachers and school officials in the United Kingdom thought so, and they referred these children for investigation as potential terrorists. They were interrogated by U.K. law enforcement. They’re likely subject to ongoing monitoring, with details of their childhoods maintained in secret government files potentially indefinitely.

A report released last week by Rights Watch (UK) highlights these and other children’s experiences under a U.K. countering violent extremism (CVE) program known as Prevent. Prevent imposes a legal obligation on schools to implement policies assessing whether children have “extremist” views or are at risk of engaging in terrorism, and to “intervene as appropriate.” Intervention may include referring the child to a related program in which panels of police officers, teachers, and other government employees identify children they think are vulnerable to terrorist recruitment.

Why should any of this concern Americans? Because the FBI wants to do something a little bit too close for comfort in U.S. schools, and American schoolchildren may come under similar suspicion and scrutiny.

There are some things we just shouldn’t import — and on the top of that list should be a discriminatory government program that turns teachers into spies and stifles children’s ability to learn, ask questions, and debate ideas.  

While there’s no similar government-imposed duty on American schools, U.S. CVE initiatives are based on the Prevent model. Due to this, a core component of the U.S. CVE plan tasks teachers, social workers, and school administrators with monitoring and reporting to law enforcement on children in their care. An FBI document released earlier this year tells teachers to spy on their students’ thoughts and suggests that administrators essentially turn schools into mini-FBI offices. Rights Watch’s report shows what might happen if American schools actually follow the FBI’s proposals.

Prevent, unsurprisingly, turns out to be controversial and divisive—a “toxic brand.” Earlier this year, the United Kingdom’s largest teachers union voted to reject the program, calling it ineffective and counterproductive and stating that it causes “suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom.”

We’ve written before about one fundamental concern with CVE programs: They are premised on disproven theories and junk science. Despite years of study, there is no reliable indicator to predict who will engage in violence. In the absence of reliable indicators, the Rights Watch report shows that U.K. programs rely on overbroad and ambiguous criteria describing common and entirely innocent conduct. These so-called indicators include changing one’s style of dress or appearance to match a certain group, expressing a need for identity or belonging, or “becoming quieter” — factors so general it would be difficult to find a child or teenager who hasn’t exhibited such behavior at some point.  

Unsurprisingly, when teachers are required to report on “extremist” thoughts or conduct using unreliable and vague criteria, some of those teachers’ suspicions reflect society’s prejudice. Rights Watch found that although Prevent purports to apply to all children at risk of extremism, it disproportionately targeted Muslim children. According to Rights Watch:

"[T]argeting Muslim children, making them feel that they are not welcome to discuss political or religious matters at school, and creating a dynamic in which Muslim youth come to be fearful of the educational setting and distrustful of their teachers and their classmates, is counter-productive, discriminatory, and a violation of the fundamental rights that are at the heart of the very civil society the government seeks to protect."

CVE programs in the United States using similarly overbroad and ambiguous criteria will inevitably result in discriminatory and unfair targeting of American Muslim children, too.

Another concern about CVE programs is that the government uses them to task people to spy on each other. The Rights Watch report bears out this concern — and its consequences.  In the U.K., students fear that reading “controversial” books or engaging in classroom discussion may cause teachers to report them as potential terrorists. Teachers in turn report that Muslim students are ceasing to engage in classroom debate and that teachers themselves are self-censoring the topics they discuss in classrooms. Rights Watch found resulting violations of students’ freedoms of speech and association and their rights to privacy and equal treatment in education. 

Here in the United States, the first principle of the National Education Association’s Code of Ethics is a commitment to the student. Teachers may not deny a student’s access to different viewpoints, deliberately suppress or distort subject matter relevant to a student’s progress, or restrict benefits to any student on the basis of race, national origin, or political or religious beliefs. The Rights Watch report is a warning to American principals and teachers of how CVE programs can violate that first principle. It’s also a warning to the U.S. agencies charged with formulating or implementing CVE, including the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and Education.

There are some things we just shouldn’t import — and on the top of that list should be a discriminatory government program that turns teachers into spies and stifles children’s ability to learn, ask questions, and debate ideas.  

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Anonymous

If you're a Muslim the ACLU bend over backwards to help you and protect you even if you are a terrorist. But if you are a Christian then the ACLU will do everything they can to eradicate you and your beliefs.

Anonymous

Obviously a Trump supporter.

Anonymous

Uneducated and illogical!

Danny Lampley

Evidence, please.

Anonymous

The ACLU of Virgina provided legal representation to Reverend Jerry Falwell, when he had a dispute with local government over church property.

The ACLU also defends the right of Christian students to post the Ten Commandments and other Christian symbols on their school lockers, tee shirts, jewelry, etc. If a public school, a government entity, imposes religion onto it's students, the ACLU will sue the government for violating the First Amendment rights of it's citizens. The ACLU defends students and citizens exercising their religious freedom.

Eisenhower was mostly a great president, except for gay rights, but in the 1950's Eisenhower added "One Nation Under God" as our national motto. At the time in the 1950's our enemies were supposedly godless communists, but the unconstitutional motto led many Americans to believe that we were a Christian "theocracy" - which is the opposite of religious freedom and opposite of the Founding Fathers. The ACLU fights theocracy not your religious freedom.

Anonymous

Yeah this group must totally love muslims, https://www.aclu.org/news/aclu-em-defends-kkks-right-free-speech

Anonymous

And if you are a teacher, you have no rights. A student can threaten to harm you, call you a racist, tell you that you are only calling out students that are black. And guess what? You have no rights. You have to sit and listen and say nothing. These are 13 year olds who speak out against their teachers. When these same kids grow up to be adults, and they are asked to conform they wont. Then if they don't nothing can be done

Picture this.. You are a teacher. Your students call you a racist. They call you out in class and tell you that you are only asking a particular student to put his cell phone away because he is black. These kids refuse to stand for the pledge. These students demean you in front of the class . You are verbally abused by a 13 year old everyday because the school district is afraid of reprocussions. You are threatened that you will be verbally slapped. Another teacher is threatened physically. Nothing is done. When these kids are mainstreamed in society they don't know how to respect. Then the person in authority is condemned for trying to uphold the laws. I challenge anyone to spend a week in a school that does not respect authority with no support.

Anonymous

Why is he a Trump supporter? For telling the truth?

Anonymous

It's so easy to paint Muslim people as terrorists, and the problem many people support that.

Anonymous

This should come as no surprise that this type of profiling is already taking place in schools around the U.S. When I was in 8th grade, a classmate complained to school admin that I was "a Communist" simply because I remained seated and silent each morning instead of pledging allegiance to the flag. The district called my parents to the school to "interview" (interrogate) them about our religious and political beliefs.

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