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Does Monitoring Kids for Terrorist Traits Mess with Their Heads?

I asked a couple of experts if snooping on children for signs of radicalisation will affect their development.
17 June 2015, 11:40am

Schools are under suspicion for being terrorist hot-beds (Photo via)

When is a child old enough to have their mobile phone examined for signs that they're a potential terrorist? At what point does a teacher need to start listening out for phrases like "jihadi bride" and "war on Islam" in the playground?

These are the weird and difficult questions being asked in British schools today. The days when kids drawing dicks everywhere was the biggest worry are behind us. Today's teachers are expected to be intelligence officers trained in the subtle business of susceptibility to religious and political fundamentalism.

Firms are selling "anti-radicalisation" software to education boards, with one company now piloting its system on school computers in 16 different locations across the UK. The software monitors pupils' online antics for extremist-related language, flagging up keywords like "Kuffs" (a casual, insulting term for non-Muslims) or "YODO" (an acronym for "you only die once" which shows up in ISIS martyrdom material).

Under the Counter-terrorism and Security Act 2015, which comes into force next month, schools have a new duty to "have due regard to the need to prevent pupils being drawn into terrorism".

News about the spy software follows controversy over a questionnaire sent to primary schools in East London's Waltham Forest. There, a survey which asked children aged between 9 and 11 years old leading questions about whether they would be prepared to hurt someone who made fun of their race or religion. Another East London primary school invited the parents of four-year-olds to an evening workshop on preventing radicalisation, as part of the government's "Prevent" anti-extremism initiative.

Is four years old really a ripe enough age for teachers to assume that kids in their care might be terrorists? And what will that kind of suspicion do to the development of young people? How fucked up and distrustful are our kids going to grow up? I asked a couple of experts for their thoughts.

Bill Bolloten is a former teacher who is now an educational consultant providing training in equality and community cohesion.

VICE: Hi Bill. What do you think of anti-radicalisation software in schools?
Bill Bolloten: I think it's dangerous. It's extending the eyes and ears of the state. It's requiring a kind of law enforcement role teachers are not well-equipped for. The government's Prevent strategy guidance applies to all schools, colleges and universities, even nurseries. I really don't know what the signs of extremism are supposed to be when you're 4 or 5 years old, when you're still learning to write and express thoughts.

Are there any signs of vulnerability primary school teachers could be watching out for?
The idea there is a set of indicators you can assemble that will point to a child vulnerable to being radicalised – I'm not convinced by that idea. There's no evidence for it. In one of the bits of government guidance, it says "there is no single route to terrorism, nor is there a simple profile". But unfortunately the idea there are clear signs to be detected is embedded in the government's approach and the training schools are getting.

What are the indicators supposed to be?
A lot of it is vague and contradictory. There are supposed to be indicators of vulnerability like "changing your of dress or appearance in accordance with a group". Other indicators mentioned on policy documents are "identity crisis" or "personal crisis" or "difficulties with social interaction". I mean, this is absurd. I could have ticked all of these when I was 15 years old.

So are teenagers at 15 more vulnerable to extreme ideas?
Well, when you're in your teenage years, you get curious about the adult world. Schools need to be safe places to express controversial opinions as you're exploring ideas. But there's no correlation between just looking at something, or talking about it, and getting drawn into unlawful acts.

How will pupils feel about being monitored?
The danger is it will fracture trust. Pupils will feel like they're under surveillance. At this year's National Union of Teachers conference, there were a lot of delegates saying pupils had told them, "I've got opinion on this, but I'm not going to share it because I'd be labelled an extremist."

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And in younger children, how could it affect their psychological development?
If you create a situation where, from 4 or 5 years old, children are given the impression they've done something wrong or potentially dangerous because of something perfectly innocent they've written or said, that can't be good for their healthy development. Labelling or stigmatising a young child can clearly have consequences for their mental and emotional well-being. They could become more withdrawn and quiet if they feel the school isn't a safe place to express themselves, just at the time they're still trying to establish a secure sense of their own identity. Singling children out could lead to them mistrusting each other and undermines the welcoming, trusting atmosphere a school should create.

Michael Mumisa is a Muslim scholar and academic at the University of Cambridge. He has written extensively about education and multiculturalism.

VICE: Hi Michael. What do you think of anti-radicalisation software in schools?
Michael: The Prevent strategy has become an industry, and the idea of keywords raising alarm bells for teachers is ridiculous. For one thing, youth language changes. And the people who make the software don't understand how fast the terms change among young people, so software isn't going to be able to keep up anyway.

So primary school children aren't likely to be vulnerable to extremism, whatever the terms they're using?
The idea children searching or using certain phrases are somehow vulnerable to supporting terrorist organisations – no, that's ridiculous. Children are inquisitive. They hear things – they might have heard something on TV about jihad or holocaust, and they might say something shocking about it. They are challenged, whether by friends or teachers, and they learn. Should we be concerned they'll join ISIS or a Neo-Nazi group? No. School should be a free space where young people feel free to ask and discuss things.

What sort of age do young people begin to explore potentially worrying political ideas?
As they enter their teenager years, at around 13, young people do become more curious about the world, about injustices, and as they get closer to be an adult, they wonder where they are going to fit in. Young Muslims can be the most politicised. But if you have young guy asking questions about Israel and Palestine, you have to try to develop their interest in history. If you refuse to engage, they are more vulnerable to going to YouTube preachers explaining things with conspiracy theories.

But how do teachers know when controversial ideas are things to be worried about?
Good teachers can see patterns of behaviour, a change in attitude, and judge whether to intervene. But software can't do that. A box on form can't do that. Mosques are now afraid to engage in anything like political discussion, so that space has been closed down for young people. If we take away schools too, it could drive young people online as the only place these difficult ideas are discussed.


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