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Now, a high-tech witch hunt for 'dangerous' students

By Jon Katz First Amendment Center scholar

Although it received little sustained media attention or discussion, a government agency and a private security expert have teamed up to launch a shocking experiment in technology, sociology and education: the use of sophisticated computer software named Mosaic-2000 to compile profiles of students who might be deemed dangerous.

This quite astounding intrusion of federal law-enforcement authority and a private security agency into the daily life of students was presented routinely by news organizations that reported it, as if this were a perfectly logical and rational response to the wave of violence allegedly engulfing U.S. schools.

It was actually welcomed by school administrators, perhaps relieved to be rid of responsibility for figuring out for themselves which kids might be in trouble. Now, they can just let Mosaic-2000 worry about it.

This is a particularly revealing example of just how dangerous news media, political ignorance and distortions of media and culture have come to be. Were the government to join forces with software companies to gather confidential profiles on almost any other segment of American life journalists, members of the clergy, conservatives, liberals whole forests would be felled for outraged editorial writers. But in the post-Columbine age, geek profiling is not only acceptable but welcome.

Within minutes of Sunday's announcement that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was working with a threat-evaluation company to develop a computer program that helps school administrators spot students near the brink of violence, the e-mail began.

Although the new program was described in the mainstream news media as a valuable tool for defusing violence, plenty of geeks and nerds saw it in a different, perhaps wiser, context.

"It worries me a great deal," wrote The Hollow Man. "Can you make us heard about this? Voice our concerns? This tool will be making diversity a wrong, [and will be used] for alienating and ostracizing those who are different." Hollow Man described himself as a "very, very worried geek."

But he's also a smart one, and whether he knows it or not, history is on the side of his well-founded fears. The deployment of sophisticated new profiling software the kind used to spot assassins and terrorists in America's public schools is a radical evolution in the use of dubious technology to attack social problems. With hardly any public discussion at all, it also raises enormous issues relating to privacy, freedom of speech and thought, and confidentiality.

Kids who speak recklessly or impulsively could very well find themselves branded as dangerous, even murderous a label that could stick with them the rest of their lives, given the way information is now stored and shared digitally. They may find themselves, as many have in the wake of the Columbine hysteria, under pressure to be safe rather than outspoken, guarded rather than honest.

Geek profiling, the post-Columbine nationwide American war on the culture and lifestyles of the different, the alienated, and the non-normal, has climbed to another Orwellian level.

After the Columbine High tragedy, American educators, politicians and journalists concluded that guns, values or a twisted educational system weren't the problem. It was, especially, those kids who were online a lot, who gamed, listened to the wrong music, wore the wrong clothes, rejected sports and other reigning social conventions, engaged in rebellious, defiant or "inappropriate" speech or dress.

Even though violence and fear of violence among the young has been declining sharply for years, media and political ignorance of kids, technology and culture has only deepened. The only demonstrable links in the recent spate of horrific school shootings, still a very rare occurrence, suggest that trouble arises when emotionally disturbed adolescent white males gain access to guns. In the months after Columbine, however, there is no federal or nationwide program to help emotionally disturbed kids or to keep them away from lethal weapons.

The answer, many parents and schools seem to have concluded, isn't examining their own structures, values or curriculum, but in enforcing widespread conformity. Stop dressing strangely, behaving individualistically, engaging in non-traditional recreation, or speaking honestly.

Now there is Mosaic-2000, with its promised ability to confidentially (read secretly) vet and rate potentially violent students on a scale of 1 to 10. It is not yet clear where this information will be stored or who, precisely, will have access to it, or for how long. But it seems plausible that anonymous complaints, aberrant behavior, or teacher hostility could be stored digitally in kids' files for the rest of their lives, as criminal and financial information already is. In December, this new geek-profiling tool will begin testing at more than 20 schools.

Some administrators can't wait. One Ohio principal whose school is getting Mosaic-2000 took the view that, according to The New York Times, Mosaic's "immediate virtue would be in producing detailed documentation of its evaluation of a troubled student so that doubting parents could no longer challenge an administrator's judgment as too subjective." Now parents defending their dangerous kids will have the ATF and Mosaic to contend with as well as school bureaucrats.

Mosaic's programs, according to the Times, are based on carefully worded questions about student behavior, based on case histories of people who have turned violent. They're designed by Gavin de Becker Inc., a private security and software company in California, and are intended to help officials discern a real threat amid varied outbursts, threats and warning signs. For the past 10 years, the company has tailored risk-assessment programs for special law-enforcement programs, dealing with problems from domestic violence to terrorism.

One would think this would be a bitterly controversial escalation of computer technology as a social tool to make intuitive judgments that often confound experts with years of training. But hardly any journalists seemed to grasp these implications of Mosaic-2000. As is often the case, it fell to a handful of lonely civil libertarians.

"We are understandably hesitant about any program designed to classify students or anyone else in society as potentially dangerous based on supposedly credible data fed into a black box," warned Raymond Vasvari, legislative director of the Ohio ACLU. But the Ohio Attorney General disagreed, saying confidential files were already kept in schools and that Mosaic was a "wonderful additional tool."

The Mosaic school program consists of questions carefully crafted from case histories by 200 experts in law enforcement, psychiatry and other areas. The questions, to be answered by school administrators, will cover a variety of concerns beyond alarming talk, ranging from the availability of guns to reported abuse of domestic pets.

"I think it's a wonderful tool that has a great deal of potential, and I hope it's properly used by the schools," said Andrew Vita, associate director of field operations for the ATF, which has used the Mosaic approach to investigate abortion-clinic bombings.

Don't hold your breath about that. Since it's simpler and more expedient to blame the Net and harmless subcultures like the Goths or computer games like "Doom" or TV shows like "South Park" for violence, schools have been granted what amounts to hunting licenses with few restrictions. Kids like Hollow Man have every right to be worried that they'll be punished for what they think, wear, say or do on weekends.

He's not the only one. "I've been reading and hearing disturbing things for months," e-mailed Jason, "about kids being prosecuted because of things they say, think and believe, not things they actually do. Kids are being suspended all over the country for saying 'inappropriate' things. What does that mean? In my case, it means never to talk openly in school about anything. If they put something in your file that you're 'dangerous,' you'd never know it, but your choice of college might."

The truth is, nobody knows what "inappropriate" means, or how Mosaic-2000 might interpret it. So why not be careful, Jason wondered, and just shut up?

In any other context, a government-sponsored computer program offered by a law-enforcement agency and a private security firm to enter school systems and track down certain types of students in schools would trigger howls of protest. As long as we're deploying Mosaic-2000, why stop at "potentially violent" oddballs? Why not get to the really dangerous people loose in schools, maybe by programming Mosaic to hunt down and identify religious fanatics, such as those who believe in the literal truth of the Bible and reject Darwin and evolution? Aren't they a threat to school science programs?

Will Mosaic be used to identify bullies who exclude, ridicule, beat up and harass kids who choose to be different, driving them into the fringes of school life?

Might it prove helpful in identifying oppressive and unimaginative educators who cling to antiquated curriculums and passive teaching environments, even though many of their brightest students have vastly more creative and stimulating lives online than they do in school?

What about social cliques who believe the most important part of their school year centers around parties where they drink themselves into oblivion and, afterwards, are prone to elevated rates of sexual assault and car accidents?

Or school administrators and guidance counselors who know so little about some of their students or the nature of their own schools that they are shocked and uncomprehending when some kids become severely disturbed or enraged, even sometimes to the point of stockpiling and using guns and bombs?

Hollow Man and most "non-normal" geeks and others know better. Mosaic-2000 is out to vet them, and others who dare to define themselves differently from the normal as defined by unknown people working for private firms and government agencies.

Federal law-enforcement agencies and private, for-profit security companies have no legal mandate or business in schools, deploying computer programs to compile information on kids.

Federal agencies like the ATF and DEA haven't been able to put much of a dent in gun or drug traffic. Why would anybody cede them the duty of sifting through the complex sociocultural world of high school?

Programs like Mosaic-2000 are another nightmare from the Hellmouth that school is for so many kids. They are an abdication of responsibility and a lame excuse for schools to seek out the often creative, individualistic, idiosyncratic and rebellious students with whom they have battled for eons, and who cause them so many problems.

But if you follow mainstream journalism, you may never know that violence is almost never one of them.

Jon Katz can be e-mailed at jonkatz@slashdot.org