Libraries and the FBI Guidelines for Preventing Extremism in Schools

As pointed out in Intellectual Freedom News recently, the FBI has announced plans to refer more suspects showing leanings toward becoming terrorists—particularly juveniles—to interventions by involving community leaders, educators, mental health professionals, religious leaders, parents and peers, depending on the circumstances. In these cases, the FBI will not necessarily cease its criminal investigation and will remain alert to suspects who become dangerous or plan to travel to join extremists overseas. To assist this effort, the FBI has published guidelines for secondary school personnel regarding at-risk behaviors that serve as “drivers of violent extremism,” to facilitate intervention activities that would disengage youth from them.

While this may seem expedient from the FBI’s law enforcement perspective, there is little published evidence that high schools are hotbeds of potential terrorist recruits. For example the September 2015 report lists 54 “American foreign fighter aspirants and recruits” in Appendix II whose ages are listed. Of these 54, 3 are age 15-17 (all are from one Colorado family), and 2 are age 18 (both from Minnesota). Far more are over age 30.

The FBI Guidelines imply that there should be increased surveillance of adolescents deemed “at risk” by a variety of criteria, especially those youth who use social media and the Internet to access information. Given the changing demographics of the high school population, it is incumbent on school media specialists and their public library counterparts to remember that minority teenagers are already oversurveilled online and in person in a variety of contexts. Adding libraries to this list of surveilled institutions runs in direct opposition to the institution’s mission as well as its attractiveness and usefulness to young people.

As noted in Standards for 21st Century Learners, school library media specialists are supposed to help students “make sense of information gathered from diverse sources by identifying misconceptions, main and supporting ideas, conflicting information, and point of view or bias.” Given this standard, and the usual array of assignments on contemporary issues in the school curriculum, it might be said that school library media specialists and their instructional colleagues are already helping adolescents think critically about the information they find on the Internet.

In addition to the role of school library media specialists as information literacy instructors, the existence of the FBI Guidelines warrant a reminder that confidentiality of library records is a core value of librarianship. For libraries to flourish as centers for uninhibited access to information, librarians must stand between users’ right to privacy and freedom of inquiry on the one hand and perceptions of prohibition (real or imagined) against their exercise on the other. Just as people who borrow murder mysteries are unlikely to be murderers, so there is no evidence that seeking information on the Internet about terrorism produces terrorists, regardless of age. Those seeking information on the Internet about terrorism are unlikely to be terrorists, regardless of age, and may only be looking for information for a school assignment. Even if such Internet use is personal, librarians need to remember that being curious and being young does not automatically make one suspect, nor in-need of a mind-changing intervention, even among at-risk youth.

Written by Mary K. Chelton

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