Preventing the Criminalization of Children in Schools

The United States has never been a welcoming country to people of color, immigrants outside of white western Europeans, natives, nor the organized Left, and that narrative isn’t changing anytime soon. While the government has a history of planting spies into Left organizations through projects like “Operation CHAOS” and recently used military-grade weapons and insurgent techniques against Water Defenders in Standing Rock, a new program designed to prevent critical thought about domestic practices and to spy on people of color has been implemented in the FBI’s Preventing Violent Extremism in Schools (PVES) program. Since targeting Black and brown, Left, and immigrant adults isn’t enough for the United States government’s pacification efforts, children will now be under suspicion while they are attending school and are under the care of their teacher-turned FBI informant.

Modeled after the British program Counter Violent Extremism (CVE), the PVES program is designed to identify children in the K-12 system that exhibit concerning behavior through the use of their teachers as informants. Within the PVES report:

The FBI defines violent extremism as encouraging, condoning, justifying, or supporting the commission of violent acts to achieve political, ideological, religious, social or economic goals…[and] concerning behavior is defined as behavior that comes to the attention of third parties (bystanders) that suggest possible future intention, resulting from a statement or action that causes concern.

With those vague definitions in pocket, schools are the battleground for this new FBI fight against homegrown extremism because they are, most simply, a place where children gather. Because of this, school teachers under the PVES program must not only evaluate their students’ academic performance but “the underlying catalysts associated with a student’s behavior and [determine] the form of ideologically motivated extremism the student has embraced.”

While schools are the place where children congregate, the real enemy that teachers should be on the lookout for is the sharing of information online. Students “strongly depend on social media and seek immediate connections or gratification…the need for connectivity, acceptance, or a sense of belonging can drive their overall needs, online activities, and their social sphere of influence.” This leads to students being “easily tempted by the false allure of quick and easy social connections amidst an individualistic society from which they feel alienated.”

The also poorly defined extremist groups now have the ability “to transcend geographical boundaries…made possible by the internet and the use of social media.” If a news article a student reads is too extreme (this magazine would be an example), if they visit a website with extreme views, if they talk about politics counter to the U.S.’s stance, if they feel alienated from their peers, if they are anxious or depressed, if they grow or shave a beard, if they play Call of Duty 4 (which is specifically mentioned in the guidelines), if they are too into their religion, race, or culture, or exhibit and sort of “concerning behavior” not specifically outlined in the guidelines, these students, under the PVES program, would now have an FBI file and investigation started on them.

The theories behind the FBI’s creation of this program are at times too broad about human nature and at other times are extremely off-base in their assumptions. One such example comes when the FBI frames joining a violent extremist group as part of being human and dissatisfied with western culture (aka capitalism and individualism):

The desire to ascribe meaning to one’s life, being part of something much larger than oneself is an overriding wish in human nature. Researchers concluded that embracing violent extremism is due to vulnerabilities in human nature that are exacerbated by aspects of Western societies.

Since the majority of humans are, in fact, not part of extremist organizations, ascribing joining an extremist organization to human nature is blatantly a false assumption – one that the rest of the report and the program builds on.

Further, many of the studies and backing claims the FBI presents in this report are from other studies the FBI has, itself, conducted in addition to cherry picking facts and information that back their stance without giving any critical thought to concepts that challenge their position. As Dr. Will Jackson, researcher and teacher of criminology at Liverpool John Moores University and critic of the “Countering Violent Extremism” program in the UK, states in his academic article “Securitisation as Depoliticisation: Depoliticisation as Pacification,” the question asked by those who promote security (like the ones found in the FBI’s report this article is addressing) are:

At best ineffective and at worst counter-productive, merely reinforcing the seemingly unquestionable status of security in contemporary political discourse. The failure to reject the logic of security has compounded an analytic and political blockage that prevents critical work understanding the violence of the liberal state.

Dr. Jackson further points out that the War on Terror, since its inception, “has relied on this thinly veiled construction of external threat to legitimate interventionist strategies and provide a legitimizing gloss on the broader politics of security” and “has been couched in the language of counter-radicalization and counter-extremism.” The warfront for such efforts has shifted to the domestic front and “the concern here has been with the identification of an internal enemy.”  

The PVES program isn’t something new; it is part of the larger framework of spying and security that is across the U.S. The PVES program in the United States was first piloted in schools in Los Angeles, Boston, and Minneapolis and is now a voluntary program for schools to take part in. Like many other security-based programs in the U.S., this program intersects with an existing architecture of security that’s in place. Hamid Khan, lead coordinator for the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, further explains:

It’s all very intersectional. We [the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition] have been talking about how the template for gang databases and the template for SARS (Suspicious Activity Report Databases) are a template for Chronic Offender Bulletins and the LASER (Los Angeles Strategic Extraction Restoration) program and predictive policing, so the geography is already there. The template is already there…so now the question really is how those tactics are going to be applied. I think it’s a pretty explosive trajectory because ultimately it’s going to impact the youth very dramatically…This program [PVES] goes through K-12 now and we’ve seen the impact in England — three year olds and four year olds being criminalized.

Hamid points out that while this program isn’t nationally enforced yet and only asks for volunteer districts to get their teachers to spy on their students, the UK version of the program became mandatory and spreads from teachers to “bus drivers, taxi drivers, counselors, administrators — really anyone that comes into contact with children.” Dr. Jackson agrees with this assessment of UK’s program and notes that “UK counter-terrorism strategy is diffused into all aspects of government, widening the state’s policing of ‘suspect’ populations.”

Here in Los Angeles, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition has taken the lead in fighting against the implementation of the PVES in the schools themselves. Hamid states that students who are “showing anger, frustration, engaging in politics, showing signs of anxiety, are overly exuberant — there are several things listed in the guidelines that can make a student a target like growing a beard or shaving a beard or if a Muslim student takes part in their Friday prayers or fasting for Ramadan. All of these markers have been used against young people through this program to criminalize them.”

Targeting the PVES program at the Muslim population isn’t accidental; the FBI has been floating around a name change from Preventing Violent Extremism in Schools to Countering Violent Islam according to Hamid. While the language of the guidelines states that this program targets “white supremacist” groups, in the same sentence the FBI categorizes “animal rights and eco-terrorists, and anti-government or radical separatist groups” while also stating that these are just a few example populations the FBI is targeting with this program. This program blatantly tries to limit the number of children who make choices outside of the norms of capitalism by engaging with politics, being concerned with the environment, or rejecting the consumption of commodified animal products. With the added emphasis the guidelines have on religion and a family’s nation of origin, any child who has family from a country being bombed by the U.S. military is now a suspect for merely existing.

While the PVES program was tested in L.A. schools, it hasn’t, up to the date this article is being published, been implemented in L.A. schools now that the program is voluntary nationwide. The Los Angeles Teacher’s Union has taken an official stance against PVES and is asking the Los Angeles Unified School District to follow suit. The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition has done outreach work with the Los Angeles Teacher’s Union to provide information directly to students on the PVES program, and the coalition has even been working on organizing a day camp around the issue as well.

Preventing the criminalization of children in schools around the U.S. is urgent and should be a priority for the Left. Hamid’s words add to this state of urgency:

As we have seen in the past, under the guise of ‘threat to national security,’ how many programs have been implemented, how young people have been targeted, and ultimately how it’s the criminalization of the youth. That’s what’s going on because the investment in youth development isn’t there, so just like other ways society’s problems (for example hunger, homelessness, and poverty) [get dealt with], society ends up policing its way out of problems so the investments are in policing rather than community development or enhancing the health and wellbeing of the community.

If you are a parent, if you know a parent, if you are a child in school, or know a child going to school, this program affects you. Hamid Khan has offered the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition’s resources and strategies to any and all who wish to take action against this program to prevent it from being implemented by school districts in your area. You can reach out to the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition through their website, StopLAPDSpying.Org.

Read more like this in the Anti-Security Issue of The Socialist.

Amanda Riggle

Amanda graduated with her BA in English Education, is finishing her MA in English Literature, and is entering into an English PhD program fall 2018. She studies Early Modern English Drama, Marxism, and Feminism. She is an editorial board member of The Socialist, one of the co-founders of the Inland Empire chapter of the Socialist Party USA, co-chair of the Socialist Party of California, and a member of the Socialist Party USA's National Committee.

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