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Instrusive Social Science

U.S. Secret Service backs up student profiling critics

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A decade ago, when I edited a paper in New York City, the commander of the Village's 6th Precinct would call me up and tell me to bring a photographer and meet him near Washington Square Park. There, many people liked to casually smoke pot, hidden in the crowd. When he gave the signal we'd watch vans loaded with police officers swoop into the park and block the exits. Anyone caught with a joint was arrested.

It was an exercise in futility. Most of the arrestees -- who at one point included aging rocker Deedee Ramone -- were taken to the station house, and usually given desk-appearance tickets, akin to a slap on the wrist. They were often back in the park with a joint by the next weekend.

Everyone involved, especially the police, knew this was a press event to show the community that the police were trying to stem the tide of "drugs," although the real drug activity -- crack, junk, murders -- took place blocks away. Those were tougher nuts to crack.

The same thing is now happening in U.S. schools. I complained last November about Mosaic 2000, a student-profiling software program invented by a Hollywood celebrity bodyguard. The software, currently being tested in schools nationwide, asks questions of seemingly "troubled" students and their parents to determine which kids fit the profile of likely criminals. I complained that administrators would use this taxpayer-funded, for-profit operation (assisted by the CIA and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) to violate the privacy and rights of students, based on subjective criteria (black clothing, access to guns, shyness). Yet lots of adults could say they tried should another violent incident occur.

Now entering the fray is the U.S. Secret Service, a group most of us will agree are bona fide security experts. Earlier this month, the group's National Threat Assessment Center released results from an ongoing study of 40 school-violence cases over the last 20 years. The conclusions, reported April 7 by USA Today, are not surprising: Like political assassins, school shooters do not share a single profile. They do not usually make explicit threats. And many of the students had been harassed, and had sought help (fruitfully or not) from school officials.

This Secret Service study is motivating civil libertarians and children's advocates who condemn blanket profiling such as Mosaic 2000 as a PR effort, not likely to allay many, if any, crimes. Thankfully, these opponents cut across political lines, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Rutherford Institute (the same group that defended Paula Jones against President Clinton), a group that is vocally fighting for students' rights.

"Mosaic 2000 and its proponents ignore a simple life lesson: You can't judge people by outward appearances," wrote Rutherford head John W. Whitehead on the group's Web site (www.rutherford.org). "Human beings are complex and complicated. They simply cannot be profiled as if they were machines."

Whitehead is rightly concerned about how school officials will use the data. He worries that administrators may share the information with other schools, with police, or even upload it into online databases. This concern has precedent: the gang databases that target youth using subjective and highly inconsistent criteria. In Colorado and many states, local authorities feed already-subjective information into statewide databases, ensuring these labels follow kids from place to place -- although much of the information may be unfair.

"Once school officials have targeted a specific student, either because he or she dresses differently or appears withdrawn, the door is opened for further intrusion," Whitehead adds. He also worries that parents who dare to speak out against repressive school policies -- already treated as trouble-making pariahs by many school boards, as in Lewis-Palmer District 38 -- will be targeted by state intrusion.

"The truth is that people cannot be categorized as if they were digital chips in a machine," he continues. "Each student is a unique individual. Neither the students nor their parents should have their rights threatened by intrusive social science."

I'm with Whitehead on this one.

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