Is the FBI Profiling Students to Interview Without Parental Consent?

Without parental notice or consent, FBI agents recently questioned students from Plano West Senior High School, Texas, about their former classmate, 17-year-old Matin Azizi-Yarand. The students interviewed overwhelmingly identified as Muslim. Several of them had no real relationship with Azizi-Yarand, beyond a shared religion and attendance of a high school with more than 2,000 students. 

Azizi-Yarand was arrested at the same school weeks earlier and charged with two counts of criminal solicitation to capital murder and making terrorist threats. A high school junior, he had converted to Islam in the summer of 2017, and according to reports, befriended three FBI operatives online at the end of that year.

During the five months that followed, in his conversations with the informants and undercover agents, Azizi-Yarand reportedly made horrific statements, including expressing an intent to shoot civilians at a local mall. The origin and context of Azizi-Yarand’s statements are unclear; some speculate he may have been goaded into these statements.

As an attorney and a board member of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights organization, I was contacted by parents who were concerned about FBI agents questioning their children in school without their knowledge or consent.

The school police officer, as well as multiple students who were interviewed, confirmed there was no parental consent. According to student reports, at least five others from the school were interviewed. One student reported that up to 10 students were interviewed.

The FBI showing up unannounced to a school to question minors — only presumed knowledgeable by nature of their race or religion — outside of the presence of any other adult, guardian and counsel is a blatant overreach and abuse of power.

The FBI’s public affairs office has not responded to my request for official guidelines on interviewing non-suspect minors on their school campus without prior notice or consent of guardians.

None of these minors were informed when they were pulled out of their classes and escorted by a police officer to a separate room that they would be participating in an FBI interview about Azizi-Yarand.

None were told that their statements would become part of an official record that could be used at trial or that could be used against them in a perjury charge if they misspoke or forgot a detail they believed to be inconsequential.

One student reported that when he was asked to leave class, he believed it was regarding acquiring a parking pass for the following year. The police officer in the office told him he was not in trouble and that “this” would only take a few minutes.

According to the student, the officer later escorted him to another room where he was alone with an individual in plain clothes who did not identify himself prior to asking for the student’s license or identification.

When the student replied he did not have one, the agent asked the student to provide his name, address and date of birth. At this point, the student still believed the interaction revolved around parking permits for the following year.

Only after the student complied did the agent identify himself, show his badge and inform him that he was there to ask about the student’s relationship with Azizi-Yarand. The FBI agent asked questions about whether this student ever considered getting involved with Azizi-Yarand, engaging in conduct like that of Azizi-Yarand’s, or if Azizi-Yarand’s extremist views had influenced any of his friends.

When the student relayed an incident that involved one of his friends and Azizi-Yarand, the agent produced a photograph of the friend and asked if the student was referring to him. The student nodded.

All the students I spoke to were Muslim. According to them, only one non-Muslim was interviewed by the FBI. That individual’s ethnic heritage may have mistakenly led agents to believe that he, too, was Muslim. It is unclear whether the FBI likewise interviews students at schools where mass shootings have occurred without notice or parental consent, profiling them on the basis of a shared religion or ethnicity with the shooter.

In the case of alleged Santa Fe, Texas, shooter Dimitrios Pagourtzis, that would mean white students in contact with him would have been interviewed without notice or parental consent. Likewise, alleged Parkland, Florida, shooter Nikolas Cruz‘s case would have similarly resulted in interviews of white students there, absent notice or consent of guardians, as well as for the peers of the Columbine shooters.

In Plano, after interviewing multiple students regarding any possible connection to Azizi-Yarand, a common thread remained that none of them believed the interview was voluntary. Each FBI interview lasted around 15 minutes, and they said they felt that they were being investigated and needed to “clear their name.” Some were afraid. Some were nervous. All were confused.

John Janney, executive director of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of CAIR, reached out to the Plano West Senior High School principal for comment on the interviews, but only one assistant principal, who was unaware of the situation, returned his call. No further statement or clarification was offered to CAIR.

However, the Plano Independent School District sent local news station WFAA this policy in response to their inquiry, “If the interviewer raises what the principal considers to be a valid objection to the notification, parents shall not be notified.”

The logical inference from this statement is that the FBI objected to parents being notified prior to interviewing their children on school grounds. The school, which has a duty to protect its students, was colluding with the FBI to enable this egregious overreach.

A person charged with a crime has the right to Miranda warnings, yet a 16-year-old non-suspect is given no information about their civil liberties.

FBI overreach in conducting interviews is as recent as the case of Noor Salmanabused wife of Pulse shooter Omar Mateen, who similarly agreed to an interview in the absence of counsel.

Salman was later prosecuted for statements the FBI drafted during that interview and she signed after she’d been detained and questioned for 17 hours, part of the time with her infant son. In March, a jury found her not guilty of aiding and abetting her husband and obstructing the FBI’s investigation.

Interviewing minors who have no ties to a terrorist suspect beyond sharing the same religion and school, outside the presence of counsel and with no notice to them or guardians, raises significant civil rights alarms.

Had the FBI maintained transparency by notifying parents and students in advance and given them an opportunity to understand the nature of the interview as well as the option to have counsel, there would be no issue.

A teen who is ineligible to vote should not be expected to know and assert his or her civil rights forcefully, alone in an office with one or two FBI agents on their school grounds. Law enforcement needs to exhibit transparency and accountability for persons of all ages, races and religions.