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How the Federal Government Is Using the US’s Concern With Bullying as an Excuse to Spy on Teens

The Obama administration’s directive for the Feds to coordinate local bullying prevention efforts is raising serious civil rights concerns.

The Obama administration is instructing the multiple federal agencies behind the national Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program to “find opportunities” to integrate into bullying prevention networks at the local level, according to a strategic plan released by the White House last week. The move could open the door for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to apply a counter-terror mentality to youth wellness and safety, in a national environment where law enforcement already plays an outsized role in the education system.

The new guidelines are already raising concerns among civil rights advocates, who say that a federal counter-terror program has no place in school discipline — and will only put children at greater risk of being funneled into the prison system or suffering mistreatment themselves.

The CVE program has been dogged by civil rights concerns since it was launched five years ago to “address ideologically inspired violent extremism in the Homeland.” The three pilot programs rolled out under CVE in 2015 exclusively targeted Muslim-American communities, prompting charges of ethnic and religious profiling. Scholars, meanwhile, warn that the very premise underlying CVE — that violent extremists can be profiled, identified and stopped before they commit an act of terror — has been challenged by a strong academic consensus, which finds that there is no single pathway to “terrorism.”

The latest version of the plan doubles down on the most widely-opposed aspects of the CVE program, including “local intervention teams” via which health practitioners, faith-based leaders and educators will collaborate with law enforcement.

But one line, in particular, caught civil rights campaigners by surprise. The document states that the CVE Task Force, comprised of the DHS, DOJ and FBI, “will cooperate with a variety of departments and agencies to find opportunities to integrate CVE activities into existing public safety initiatives and networks, such as those focused on bullying prevention and Internet safety.”

AlterNet made several attempts to obtain details from DHS, DOJ and the FBI about what this anti-bullying collaboration will look like in practice, yet all agencies either declined to answer questions or failed to respond to requests. Because the White House directive is vaguely worded, it is difficult to tell which programs, if any, are being explored or implemented. However, the very mention of anti-bullying language raises some serious questions for civil rights campaigners.

“This is the first time we have seen bullying raised in this context,” Abed Ayoub, legal director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, told AlterNet. “This threw us off. They need to provide more details and information about what they intend to do with bullying and CVE. We are urging that bullying prevention not be conflated with CVE.”

Brette Steele, the acting deputy director of the CVE task force, spoke with community partners over the phone last Wednesday. When asked about the anti-bullying language, she replied that “we’re working with local partners to identify interest in expanding local capacity and tailoring support to those local interests. That is an ongoing conversation.”

The lack of transparency from federal officials is raising suspicion. “Our longstanding concerns about the government’s CVE programs have been based more on how these programs have affected communities than on the nice words the government uses to describe the programs,” Hugh Handeyside, staff attorney for the National Security Project of the ACLU, told AlterNet. “In practice, the programs have been marked by a lack of transparency, an unfair and stigmatizing focus on American Muslims and a reliance on discredited theories of what drives people to engage in political violence.”

Viewing Youth With Suspicion

Shannon Erwin, executive director of the Muslim Justice League, told AlterNet that the anti-bullying language reflects a “worrying trend” in which CVE programs are being presented as a vehicle for protecting public health and wellbeing.

In September 2016, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine held a forum entitled, “Exploring the Use of Health Approaches in Community-Level Strategies to Countering Violent Extremism and Radicalization.” Among the stated goals of the workshop is “Applying health (e.g., public health, healthcare, mental/behavioral health) centered approaches to countering violent extremism and radicalization.”

Critics argue that involvement of law enforcement and intelligence agencies in health care systems will only weaken those networks and erode trust, while making the people who depend on them more vulnerable. Such fears are born out by the results of the United Kingdom’s counterpart to CVE, known as Preventing Violent Extremism. A new report by the Open Society Institute (OSI) found that Prevent has played a corrosive role in eroding trust between teachers and students, as well as doctors and patients, and thereby weakening those social services.

Michael German, a former special agent with the FBI who is now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, told AlterNet that he is concerned that “there is this constant reference to youth in their materials, particularly Kindergarten through 12th grade education.”

In March of 2016, the FBI released “Preventing Violent Extremism in Schools” guidelines instructing educational institutions across the country to report students for warning signs they could commit a violent act in the future. The document argues that “youth possess inherent risk factors making them susceptible to violent extremist ideologies or possible recruitment.” Among the risk factors, according to the FBI, are bullying and victimization. For example, the document states:

The Virginia Youth Violence Project, administered by the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, developed a threat assessment model for addressing the underlying catalysts to concerning behaviors. The model emphasizes early attention to problems such as bullying, teasing, or other student conflicts before they escalate in to violent behavior. Educators adopt a problem-solving approach via a punitive zero-tolerance behavior modification approach. This new approach promotes student-staff interactions resulting in a more positive school climate in which students feel treated with fairness and respect.

The FBI instructed school officials to “Implement Annual Violent Extremism Awareness Training,” based on the FBI’s “Don’t Be a Puppet” educational resources. These materials identify broad and vague risk factors, including: “Talking about traveling to places that sound suspicious”; “Using code words or unusual language”; and “Using several different cell phones and private messaging apps.”

The materials state that “Those who feel isolated can sometimes be easily convinced by violent extremist beliefs,” going on to warn that “it often happens when someone is trying to fill a deep personal need. For example, a person may feel alone or lack meaning and purpose in life. Those who are emotionally upset after a stressful event also may be vulnerable to recruitment.”

Notably, the FBI is advising organizations to “consider incorporating the [Don’t Be a Puppet] site into safety briefings and anti-bullying programs.”

A separate DHS fact sheet states that “Broad community outreach and engagement efforts, made in the effort to address civil rights protections, or advance common community goals (such as bullying prevention or anti-gang efforts) that are conducted for the purpose of building stronger communities, and not explicitly CVE, can nonetheless have important CVE benefits by reducing alienation of vulnerable minority populations and assisting in developing integrated and resilient communities.” The implication of this material is that people who are alienated by bullying, civil rights violations or high gang activity are somehow at risk of perpetrating violent extremism.

Yet, such claims are not backed up by evidence — and are even contradicted by White House’s own admission that in the latest CVE strategic plan: “There is no single cause of or pathway to violent extremism.” But, in practice, the government appears to be setting policies based on the assumption that future violent extremists can, in fact, be profiled, and it is setting the parameters for risk factors so broadly that youth, alienation and mistreatment are cause for suspicion.

Erwin said that, given the fact that CVE has historically targeted Muslim populations, she is “concerned that students who are victims of bullying could be treated as potential perpetrators of extremism. Muslim students are already facing high levels of bullying, and a lot of that bullying comes from school staff. We are troubled by any suggestion that having different ideas or acting differently, as suggested by the Don’t Be a Puppet program, might cause kids to be the target of further institutional bullying as the result of being treated as a potential extremist.”

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of examples backing up Erwin’s concerns, including the viral story of 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, who was arrested in Irving, Texas last year for bringing a clock to high school. In August, a Long Island middle school was accused of coercing a 12-year-old Muslim student with severe learning disabilities to write a false confession stating that he is a member of ISIS and a terrorist who intends to detonate a bomb.

“I’ve Been Told by the District I Can’t Talk About My Work”

Despite rising criticism from academics and educators, CVE appears to already play a role in the Boston Public School system. U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz released a paper on CVE in February 2015 that she says was developed “by a collaborative of non-governmental and governmental stakeholders from the Greater Boston region.” The document identifies the goal of utilizing “schools, community and faith-based programs and private providers to offer opportunities to students who are interested in understanding and developing mediation, conflict resolution, bullying prevention and intervention skills and becoming peer leaders and advocates.”

Jodie Elgee is the director of the Counseling and Intervention Center for the Boston Public Schools, and she is listed as a stakeholder on CVE materials from teh DOJ. “Both street gangs and violent extremists lure the most vulnerable in with promises of a better life with a purpose and a place to belong,” she told the Boston Globe that same month in praise of the city’s pilot program.

Yet, a coalition of human rights organizations released a joint letter, also in February 2015, expressing general alarm about the role of CVE programs in the Boston area. “All youth deserve to pursue their imperfect transitions to adulthood without having such behaviors policed or becoming the targets of interventions,” reads the statement, whose signatories include the Muslim Justice Leage and Jewish Voice for Peace-Boston.

AlterNet asked Elgee by phone how the CVE program has played out in the aggressive anti-bullying initiatives of the Boston Public School system, which has a program where students can text tips to a “Safe Space and Bullying Prevention Hotline.” Elgee replied: “I can’t speak to you. I’ve been told by the district I can’t talk about my work.”

Kade Crockford, the director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU-Massachusetts, told AlterNet, “The U.S. attorney here in Massachusetts claims that CVE doesn’t target Muslim students, but that’s blatantly not true. I have serious concerns about the Boston public schools being involved in CVE programs at all. It is a way to further stigmatize a group of Muslim-American students already living in a country beset by violent Islamophobia. The secrecy is troubling. This is a public school system”

“The FBI and DHS Are Not Educational Institutions”

Dan Berger, the author of Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, explained to AlterNet how increased collaboration between CVE and local bullying prevention initiatives function as “another way of extending a policing framework into schools.”

The CVE strategic plan was released amid mounting concern about heavy law enforcement presence in schools across the country, where students of color are disproportionately funneled into the criminal justice system via what is derisively called the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

According to the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, black students are expelled at three times the rate of their white counterparts. This disproportionate punishment dovetails with higher rates of arrests. While black students comprise 16 percent of student enrollment, they represent “27% of students referred to law enforcement and 31% of students subjected to a school-related arrest,” the agency states. “Students with disabilities (served by IDEA) represent a quarter of students arrested and referred to law enforcement, even though they are only 12% of the overall student population.”

The criminalization of bullying within educational environments plays a key role in driving this trend. A new report from the ACLU chapters of northern and southern California examined the role of police in 119 California school districts. It found that “most school districts give staff complete discretion to call police to address student misbehaviors that should be handled by school staff such as administrators or counselors.” This includes “bullying and harassment,” with 60.7 percent of districts giving staff full discretion. The report notes that “police intervention to stop bullying can lead to cascading negative consequences for all students involved, and it is less effective than school-based intervention by trained teachers, counselors, or other mental health professionals.”

A nationwide surge in zero-tolerance policies towards bullying in schools, championed in 2010 by then-education secretary Arne Duncan, has been accompanied by state-level drives to criminalize bullying. According to the Cyber Bullying Research Center, 48 states have laws on the books targeting “cyberbullying or online harassment,” and 20 states classify bullying as a crime subject to criminal sanctions.

Such approaches to bullying run counter to other alternatives championed by educators and students across the country, including restorative justice practices which encourage educators to examine and transform the root causes of violence, such as bias and inequality. Organizations including the National Education Association have spoken out against zero-tolerance policies, noting that research shows “they don’t work.”

Ameer Loggins is a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has conducted research on restorative justice practices in middle and high schools. He told AlterNet that he takes issue with the terminology of bullying, which he described as unclear and subjective. “Bullying depends on the believability of the child,” said Loggins. “The vagueness of the term leaves space to further ostracize or criminalize students in accordance with suspension or referral processes, and it carries a heavy weight on the punitive end. [CVE] lobs another vague terminology that can follow them around for the rest of their lives, academically and socially stigmatizing them.”

Ayoub, on the other hand, told AlterNet that he believes bullying is a “major issue.” But he thinks it needs to be in its own separate category, and that its affiliation with CVE programs will “make it toxic.”

According to Berger, “It is understandable that opposing bullying is a popular cause, but the question is, what are the real mechanisms to address what’s going on? The response shouldn’t come from the criminal justice system or policing. The FBI and DHS are not educational institutions, and they don’t belong in schools.”