By: Yolanda Rondon, Attorney for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee
In a request last week to the Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Representative Bennie Thompson called on a complete review and privacy assessment of the FBI’s “Don’t Be a Puppet” web-based program, including its use of the Violent Extremist Risk Assessment (VERA). Why did Rep. Thompson feel compelled to make this request? I believe because his gut instincts and duty as a Congressman tell him “Do Not Target Our Children.” “Don’t Be a Puppet” is a Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program aimed at middle and high school students, and makes teachers police in our children’s classrooms. The VERA factors on paper as broad to cover any individual, but in practice these factors over inclusivity allow for the use of stereotypes and profiling based on race, national origin, and religion to determine whom is “at risk.”
Now, before even consulting and reviewing this program with civil rights and civil liberties organizations to allow substantive feedback, the government merely engaged in a check box implementation with your civil rights, ‘here is the program, this is how it is going to be done, we already tested it in a few schools and by the way it will be rolled out November 2, goodbye.’
The web-based program was not rolled out on November 2, and even the FBI website tool program has been taken off the internet. But, the FBI can easily put that website tool back online, and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) is regrettably moving forward. And make no mistake the “Don’t Be a Puppet” program is a surveillance program because CVE is a surveillance program. And teachers, students, parents, and children should be outraged that the government has come into your classrooms all across the United States, and taken control. Told them to watch this kid because of his/her name, his/her religion, he/she was born, he/she is quiet, or he/she liked a Facebook post about a protest.
Every child has the right to an education free of harassment and discrimination. We are sending our children to school to learn, not to be watched or forced to defend every statement or action made both inside and outside the classroom, and on social media. Our teachers want to teach, not to instill fear, and stifle learning and growth, and chill speech. However, with the rise of bullying and discrimination by individuals and by educational institutions, this web-based program does not aid in assuring a safe environment for our children. It will lead to the “othering” of children of color who may be given extra attention by teachers for monitoring purposes, which will ensure more bullying, bias, misperception, alienation, as well as racial and religious profiling.
It seems that the FBI wants to surveil our children in school, under the guise of community outreach – civic, social studies, and government courses. In the Somali community, community leaders working with law enforcement to address CVE were assured that spying would not be conducted in their communities. However, in 2015, information surfaced that local partner; Minneapolis Public Schools, specifically hired people to watch Somali youth in the Minneapolis schools, to “spot identity issues and disaffection.” This further alienated the Somali community, whom already felt targeted as Muslims and had a long standing lack of trust with law enforcement due to 2007 and 2009 intelligence gathering programs under the guise of community outreach.
The fact that the FBI even thought this was an appropriate program is alarming, especially to introduce in social studies class, and seems as a way to train children from a very young age that surveillance and singling out people based on a immutable characteristic is okay. When did “do not become a terrorist” classify as social studies? There has never been a “don’t become a psychopath” or “don’t become a racist” course, which are also mental-social related conditions that can lead to crime – psychopath – serial killer, racist – hate crime, but these people are not predisposed toward criminal or illegal activity
However, our children, namely children of color, will be treated and viewed a criminals and suspects, but have yet to do anything illegal. The school to pipeline system with the War on Drugs in communities of color is not going away; it is just being repackaged into the War on Terror – CVE in communities of color. Arab and Muslim students, and those perceived to be Arab or Muslim will be singled out, and/or those whom support particular political views will be reported back to FBI, law enforcement. These children are now labeled “at risk” and potentially subject to interrogation, intimidation, coercion to become an informant, and even prison because the “Don’t Be a Puppet” program told a teacher what a child “at risk” was, looked-like, sounded-like, and/or would say.
The FBI intends is to take advantage of the trust, and authority role teachers have with children and use the “Don’t Be a Puppet” program to legitimize warrantless surveillance in schools. We already have metal detectors and security guards throughout our nation’s schools, and militarized police waiting outside of the school house doors, do we really need law enforcement policing the thoughts and actions of children. Are children going to school every morning, or to prison?
 See Amanda Sperber, Somalis in Minnesota question counter-extremism program targeted at Muslims, The Guardian, Sept. 14, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/sep/14/somali-muslims-minnesota-counter-extremism-program.
 See The ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ program institutionalizes injustice against Somalis, Minn Post, May 1, 2015, https://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2015/05/countering-violent-extremism-program-institutionalizes-injustice-against-so (“According to the FBI, six percent of all acts of domestic terrorism are attributed to Muslims, which means that the CVE program will ignore the source of 94 percent of threats to homeland security”).