School Climate & Safety

FBI’s Anti-Extremism Program for Schools Promotes ‘Fear and Suspicion,’ Groups Say

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 17, 2016 3 min read
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Cross posted from Politics K-12.

Several education advocacy groups have harshly criticized a Federal Bureau of Investigation program designed to prevent the spread of “violent extremism” in American schools, saying it will harm the schools and students it’s targeting.

The American Federation of Teachers, AASA (the School Superintendents Association), the League of United Latin American Citizens, and other organizations expressed their concerns to FBI Director James Comey in an Aug. 9 letter. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. was also copied on the letter. They expressed specific concerns about Muslim students and those with Middle Eastern backgrounds.

The issue of discrimination against those students in particular, and more generally how they are viewed and treated in schools, is a growing issue.

At the start of this year, our coworker Evie Blad wrote about the U.S. Department of Education’s efforts to safeguard Muslim, immigrant, and other students from bullying and other forms of harassment. And Corey Mitchell of Education Week also wrote about how the St. Cloud district in Minnesota is helping a sizeable share of students from Somali backgrounds.

Concerns About Bullying, Discrimination

“The goal of this site is to help you better understand the destructive nature of violent extremism and learn to recognize the deceptive recruiting strategies of violent extremists who seek to turn you into “puppets” to carry out their orders,” the FBI’s “Don’t Be a Puppet” home page states.

There are several sections of the website, including one that deals with the definition of violent extremism, how extremists make contact with individuals using the internet or cell phones, and a “test your knowledge” section asking students, for example, where the Al Shabbab terrorist group is located (Somalia), and the typical targets of extremist groups. And it urges students to contact teachers, police officers, and others if they know someone who is reading a lot of content from these sources or researching how to make explosives.

But those education advocacy groups we mentioned aren’t having it.

“Increasing ideological policing and surveillance efforts like the ‘Don’t Be a Puppet’ campaign will have a chilling effect on our schools and on immigrant communities, jeopardizing children’s sense of safety and well-being and threatening the security and sense of trust of entire communities,” the groups wrote.

The letter goes on to say that “racial profiling is marginalizing” for children and will only “exacerbate the bullying and profiling of Middle Eastern and Muslim students.”

Asked to comment, Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, wrote in an email that, “Our role is limited: We reviewed the website and provided feedback to the FBI.” She did not provide more information about the nature of that feedback. Nolt also said the department wouldn’t comment on the advocacy groups’ letter itself, since it was addressed to the head of a different federal agency.

Last month, the Education Department highlighted several steps it said it had taken recently to address religious discrimination in schools, including a new website featuring information about discrimination, a new complaint form, and increased collaboration across federal agencies about the issue—the Justice Department is singled out in the department’s news release.

Read the full letter from the education groups to Comey below:

Image from the FBI’s “Don’t Be a Puppet” website.

Related reading about school climate and religious minority students:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.