Intercept - After provoking outrage from civil rights groups, the FBI has reportedly delayed the rollout of an interactive website designed to help schoolteachers identify students on the verge of turning into radical extremists.
The program, called “Don’t Be a Puppet,” described in a recent New York Times report as “a series of games and tips intended to teach how to identify someone who may be falling prey to radical extremists,” was to launch last week. But the launch has been put on hold, the Washington Post says, after blowback from critics who said it discriminated based on race and religion and focused on Islamic extremism while ignoring the far more prevalent forms of violence facing young people in American schools.
In a statement issued yesterday, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, one of the organizations that had been invited to screen the program last month, praised its suspension, saying that it had “improperly characterized American Muslims as a suspect community,” and would have contributed to “bullying, bias, and religious profiling” of Muslim students if implemented in the classroom.
The idea of profiling students and young people as possible future extremists is not new. This February, The Intercept published internal government documents revealing that the National Counterterrorism Center developed questionnaires, described in a May 2014 document, to allow teachers and social service workers to rate the extent to which children, families, or entire communities might be at risk for “radicalization.”
The United Kingdom has even more experience attempting to root out potential future terrorists in the school system. Beginning as early as toddler age, British teachers are asked to help gauge whether any of the children in their care may be showing signs of potential extremism, although that term has not been clearly defined. As part of this effort, schools have been provided with questionnaires, training and even “anti-radicalization software,” for use in classrooms to help identify students believed to be at risk. Public support for such measures has increased following reports in recent months of British schoolchildren leaving home to join the Islamic State, including three teenage girls who joined the group in Syria this February.
But experts warn that such policies risk stigmatizing young students without actually combating radicalization. “The social science of radicalization tells us that there is no set of indicators that can be used to predict who is at risk of becoming a terrorist,” says Arun Kundnani, a British researcher on radicalization and professor at New York University. The lack of any objective criteria about what constitutes radical behavior “makes testing school students for signs of extremism both absurd and dangerous,” while risking the criminalization of legitimate forms of expression by students.
Furthermore, according to Kundnani, asking teachers to do law enforcement work “fosters an atmosphere of suspicion against Muslim students and undermines norms of confidentiality and trust between young people and the professionals who work with them.”
Yahya Birt, a British academic and researcher on radicalization, also criticized the implementation of counter-radicalization programs in educational institutions, saying that since the government began making such programs mandatory in Britain this year, “We have begun to hear more cases about students being reported, and of profiling being run through schools.”
And indeed the British press in recent months has included stories of Muslim students being taken aside and questioned for expressing support for political causes, including environmental activism, as well as for conducting academic research into terrorism. According to Birt, there is a burgeoning civil society backlash brewing over these cases. “Some resistance is developing among parent groups and universities and even concerned police officers,” he said, “but we are about to get a new anti-extremism bill that is likely going to make matters even worse.”