Under new guidelines issued in January 2016, the FBI is instructing high schools across the country to report students who criticize government policies and “western corruption” as potential future terrorists, Sarah Lazare reported for AlterNet. The new guidelines also warn that young people who are poor, are immigrants, or talk about travel to “suspicious” countries are more likely to commit violence. As Lazare wrote, the FBI’s “Preventing Violent Extremism in Schools” guidelines combine “McCarthy-era theories of radicalization”—in which authorities monitor thoughts and behaviors suspected of leading to acts of violent subversion—with elements of a “widely unpopular” and “deeply controversial” British surveillance program, known as Prevent, that monitors Muslim communities and individuals.
The new guidelines depict US high schools as “hotbeds of extremism,” Lazare summarized. Claiming that youth “possess inherent risk factors,” the FBI guidelines describe high school students as “ideal targets” for recruitment by violent extremists. Educational materials prepared by the FBI for schools indicate that activities ranging from using “unusual language” or “private messaging apps” and encryption (“going dark,” in FBI speak) to playing online games outside of school could indicate that “someone plans to commit violence.”
The guidelines draw on a conveyor belt theory of extremism, which contends that extreme ideas lead to violence, a model tracing back to “the first red scare in America, as well as J. Edgar Hoover’s crackdown on civil rights and anti-war activists,” Lazare wrote. As Hugh Handeyside, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project told Lazare, by broadening the definition of violent extremism, “the FBI is policing students’ thoughts and trying to predict the future based on those thoughts.”
The guidelines “are almost certainly designed” to target Muslim-American students. “In its caution to avoid the appearance of discrimination,” Lazare wrote, “the agency identifies risk factors that are so broad and vague that virtually any young person could be deemed dangerous and worthy of surveillance.” Nonetheless, the guidelines’ repeated focus on “immigrant” and “diaspora” populations, as well as cultural and religious differences, reveal an underlying agenda. The FBI “consistently invokes an Islamic threat without naming it,” Lazare reported. Arun Kundnani, author of The Muslims are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror, about Islamophobia, told AlterNet, “In practice, schools seeking to implement this document will end up monitoring Muslim students disproportionately.”
Writing for Just Security, an online forum based at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University School of Law, Danielle Jefferis of the ACLU’s National Security Project reported that “the FBI’s request that school officials spy and report on students’ ideas and beliefs risks stifling curiosity and free expression, which corrupts the trust that should exist between teachers and students.” Though the FBI asserts that it does not want to limit students’ freedom of speech, the guidelines encourage school officials to identify students who “engage in communications indicating support for extreme ideologies” or who are “curious about” subject matter that could be deemed extreme.
In calling for schools to create threat assessment teams and to “enhance domain awareness,” the FBI engages in what Jefferis characterized as “fear mongering,” which “will almost assuredly ratchet up the pressure on school officials to go to law enforcement before seeking out alternatives.” This forces school principals with the false dilemma of choosing between keeping their schools safe or upholding students’ rights to freedom of expression and equal protection. Instead, Jefferis concluded, “Our kids are safer, and our communities are stronger, when we work to protect—not erode—our fundamental values and freedoms.”
Lazare’s AlterNet report was republished by Salon. PressTV, the Free Thought Project, MintPress News, and the Intercept subsequently ran stories on the FBI’s “Preventing Violent Extremism in Schools” guidelines, but US corporate news media appear not to have covered this story in any detail.
Sarah Lazare, “The FBI Has a New Plan to Spy on High School Students across the Country” AlterNet, March 2, 2016, http://www.alternet.org/grayzone-project/fbi-has-new-plan-spy-high-school-students-across-country.
Danielle Jefferis, “The FBI Wants Schools to Spy on Their Students’ Thoughts,” Just Security, March 11, 2016, https://www.justsecurity.org/29901/fbi-schools-spy-students-thoughts/.
Student Researcher: Brandy Miceli (San Francisco State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)