The Disinformation of “Violence Prevention”

April 20, 2009 marked the tenth anniversary of the school shootings at Columbine High School and therefore it is time again to reflect on the dominant mode of thinking that informs how the society addresses what is awkwardly called “school violence.”  Below I present excerpts of a presentation made several years ago, that focuses on how the notion of “violence prevention” is a form of disinformation.  It is disinformation in part because it refuses to seriously discuss the origin of the problems associated with violence between students or students and staff that occur at some schools.  In place of grasping the social roots of these acts, “school violence” experts adopt a model of “security” that assumes (1), that social problems are in fact problems of “state security” and (2), that everyone is a potential threat and therefore democratic norms must be suspended or rendered “ideals”.  The presentation began by outlining the social decay that faces many youth.  

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One can learn a great deal about a society by the way in which it treats its youth.  It is often said the youth are the future.  While often minimized as a cliché, a society that attacks its youth has no future.  In the United States, there are unprecedented attacks to education, with massive cuts to funding.  In addition to this, there have been massive cuts to social services in general.  Unemployment among the youth, including college graduates, continues to rise as does the student loan burden.  Concomitant to these developments are massive increases in police presence and methods in schools, where schools are filled with spy cameras, with some districts having cameras in every classroom; many schools now have metal detectors and armed guards.  Police raids of schools, where youth are attacked—showed to the floor and handcuffed, threatened with weapons—are becoming common.  Mere suspicion that a crime might be committed is justification for school officials to call the police.

Over the last few decades, several approaches have been developed, aiming to prevent violence and making schools safer.  Whether one examines anti-bullying measures, so-called school security initiatives, or violence prevention programs, one finds that the main theme is the need to “stop the problem before it starts.”  This is the notion of prevention.  Its content is similar to the notion of pre-emptive war.

Since all students are “potentially violent” they must be “screened” and “managed.”  Contrast this with the notion of safety, where people are protected from the arbitrary use of force by their government.  Two examples standout for analysis, namely the Secret Service’s “Safe Schools Initiative,” and state anti-bullying laws.  These examples reveal the role of the state in criminalizing the youth, and efforts to bring about new arrangements where the democratic norms are eschewed in favor of “security”.

The Secret Service’s “Safe Schools Initiative”

Ostensibly in response to the disturbing number of school shootings, beginning in 1999 the Secret Service, in a joint effort with the U.S. Department of Education, carried out what it calls its “Safe Schools Initiative.”  Over the course of four years, the Secret Service published three reports on what it calls “targeted school violence.”  Summaries of these reports have been widely disseminated in newspapers, on websites for educators, and in professional and scholarly journals.  Dissemination has emphasized the notion of identifying and stopping “potentially violent” youth.

The Initiative “examined school shootings in the United States as far back as 1974, through the end of the school year in 2000, analyzing a total of 37 incidents involving 41 student attackers.”  There are over 50 million students attending K-12 schools in the United States.  The Secret Service notes that almost all those convicted in school shootings have said they felt alienated, that nobody cared about them or listened to them.  Most experienced severe depression, with many (although exactly how many is not known for sure) were being treated with psychiatric drugs, and were at the time of the shooting experiencing a sense of great loss or personal failure.

A key component of the Initiative is the application of the Secret Service’s “threat assessment model” to schools.  Taking as its starting point the already widely opposed practice of “profiling,” the Secret Service says this is no longer the preferred method for evaluating “risk.”  The Initiative adds, “Until recently, most law enforcement investigations of violent crime have been conducted after the offense has occurred” [emphasis in original].  In popularizing this notion, the monopoly media is working to normalize the arrangement where police function not as law enforcers, but as a force to arbitrarily interfere with the human person in the name of prevention.

This so-called threat assessment is described as a “set of investigations and operational activities designed to identify, assess, and manage persons who may pose a threat of violence to identifiable targets.”  The main task of threat assessment is to look at “pathways of ideas and behaviors that may lead to violent action.”  The Secret Service says that “the question in threat assessment is not ‘What does the subject look like?’ but ‘has the subject engaged in recent behavior that suggests that he/she is moving on a path toward violence directed toward a particular target(s)’?”  The Secret Service also says to “watch out” for youth interested or involved in “extremist” groups without offering any examples or guidelines for identifying such groups.

The monopoly media fails to point out that the whole approach challenges existing U.S. law, where only an act can be judged, not intent: the notion of “potentially violent” is arbitrary and illegal.  Any one, particularly police and school officials, can brand a student’s behavior as “on a path toward violence” and thus call for their quarantine.  For example, an honor-roll high school student in Kansas was suspended for writing a poem entitled “Who Killed My Dog.”  A kindergartner in New Jersey was suspended from school for saying “I’m going to shoot you” on the playground while playing cops and robbers with his classmates.  A sixth-grader in Texas was put in juvenile detention for writing a Halloween essay (assigned) about a student who kills fellow students and a teacher.  Also in Texas, school officials disciplined students for wearing black armbands to mourn the victims of Columbine and to protest overly restrictive school policies. 

This claim to be “on a path to violence” also is used to criminalize dissent.  On April 23, 2004, U.S. Secret Service agents were in Prosser, Washington to interrogate a 15-year-old art student about political drawings he had turned in to his high school teacher as part of a class assignment.  The student was interrogated by the Secret Service and branded as being a threat, but then not arrested.  The school district did discipline him, but district officials refused to say why and what the punishment was. Youth at the school said the student was expressing his views against the war in his art, which is his right.

The student turned in several sketches opposing the war on Iraq and the war on terrorism.  One drawing showed a man “in Middle-Eastern-style clothing” with an AK-47 rifle and was deemed “most controversial” by school officials.  The man was holding a stick with the oversized head of President Bush on it.  The student said the head was enlarged as an effigy.  The caption called for an end to the war in Iraq.  Another sketch showed Bush dressed as a devil and launching a missile.  The caption read, “End the war on terrorism.”  Another drawing urged votes for then Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader. 

Revealing that school personnel are increasingly being drawn into profiling and attacking youth who oppose U.S. wars of aggression, the teacher reportedly turned the drawings over to school administrators.  The administrators called in the police, who brought in the Secret Service, all with no crime committed and no threats of any kind made.

School officials and police justified arbitrarily silencing the youth by simply asserting that the student’s drawings were not “political cartoons.” Instead, Superintendent Tolcacher insisted “it was not a freedom of speech issue, but a concern over the depiction of violence.”  Trying to normalize police profiling of youth based on their views and what police claim to be their intent, Wallace Shields, special agent in charge of the district explained: “If we get what someone reports to be a threat against any person or place we protect, we investigate it.”  “The drawing in itself is not the threat,” he said, emphasizing that it is “the intent behind it and the capability of the person to act upon it.”  The Secret Service, police and school administrators provided no explanation as to how the student’s intent was determined.  Note that the Secret Service is known as the President’s personal police force, an organization whose first director—a vigilante famous for attacking immigrants—had inscribed on his badge, “Death to All Traitors.”   The Secret Service is the same federal agency conducting live exercises in mass pre-emptive arrests and confining protesters to “protest pens.”  Invoking the “logic” of the “war on terrorism,” the Secret Service district office in Washington State said its actions in Prosser were not out of the ordinary.  “This is not something unique to Washington, and this is not something unique to the times that we live in,” said Shields.

States Make Bullying a Crime

The second example concerns so-called anti-bullying measures.  With these developments, social problems like bullying are made into “law and order” issues.  The actual problems are ignored.  In addition to specifically criminalizing behavior rooted in social problems, so-called anti-bullying laws and school security initiatives render youth as criminals on the basis of intent in much the same way that the USA Patriot Act defines terrorism based on intent.

Under the guise of preventing school violence, many states across the U.S. have or are considering adopting or modifying laws making bullying in public schools a crime.  At least 18 states now make bullying a crime, according to news sources.  (See http://www.bullypolice.org/ for updates.)

In Georgia earlier this year, the House passed a “tougher law on bullying,” according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The measure would expand the current law to cover elementary schools as well as middle and high schools.  As with many recently passed or proposed laws making bullying a crime, it calls on parents and students to make anonymous tips to their local schools and would require that all reports of bullying be investigated.  The news sources do not report who is responsible for carrying out the investigations.

Significantly, the new law would change the definition of bullying, which is now defined as a student’s “willful attempt or threat to inflict injury,” or an “intentional display of force” to provoke fear.  Under the new definition, bullying would be defined as “any pattern of written or verbal expression or any physical act or gesture that is intended [emphasis added] to ridicule, humiliate, intimidate, or cause measurable physical or emotional distress upon one or more students in the school, on school grounds, in school vehicles, at designated school bus stops, or at school activities or sanctioned events.”

In Indiana early this year, Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen Reed actively backed a bill that would “require Indiana’s 293 school districts to adopt rules prohibiting bullying,” according to the Indianapolis Star.  “The bill,” the Star says, “would provide a better legal definition of bullying.” Senate Bill 231 defines bullying as “overt, repeated acts designed [emphasis added] to harass, ridicule, intimidate or humiliate another student.”  Indiana Legislatures are promoting the bill as an “alternative” to increasing funding for education, especially full-day kindergarten.  

In New York State, proposed changes would present an exceedingly broad and subjective definition of bullying.  Section 2803(D) of the proposed Senate Bill defines bullying as “threatening, stalking or seeking to coerce or compel a person to do something; engaging in verbal or physical conduct” [emphasis added]. 

The laws generally require that any “tip” be investigated by state authorities, thus immediately bringing state authorities into the picture even if no problem, let alone a crime, exists.  They also make determination of “bullying” a completely subjective matter of whether an administrator or teacher or parent thinks an individual intended to be bullying.

Discussion

It is important to recognize that this notion of safety is a “police” notion, where the issue is given as the need for safe schools. The question is of course safe from what?  According to the view of “safe schools” students make schools un-safe.  This notions of safety is informed by the aim of protecting the state or “national interest”.  As an example, the national organization of school resource (police) officers has recently sworn allegiance to the President and declared support for the war on terrorism.  This blocks people from recognizing that bullying, for example, is a social problem, not a question of national security.  This “prevention” approach actually blocks parents, students and teachers from uniting and working out together real solutions to the problems the youth and society face.  Instead, students’ behavior is criminalized, as all are labeled “potential” threats, and everyone is to be afraid of everyone else, secretly reporting on everyone else.  Teachers are to become informants and enforcers for the police.  This is a recipe for disaster, not a solution!

Equally important is this: the notion of prevention justifies attacking students rights and the basic democratic premises of innocent until proven guilty, due process and habeas corpus.  How so?  If prevention means “stopping people from committing acts of violence” logic holds that one must be able to identify the person who will in the future commit a violent act.  On this basis, the arbitrary notion of “potentially violent,” the notion that youth have a “propensity to commit violent acts” is popularized, normalized and justified.  Unless one believes in clairvoyance, determining those who will commit violent crimes in the future is impossible, and inherently arbitrary.

The notion of “potentially violent” serves as a justification for using force against students who have committed no crime, violated no school rule. This of course violates all three of the basic democratic premises listed above. The claim to be able to “identify potentially violent youth” is in fact a justification for impunity, where school officials can suspend and expel students at will under the guise of solving the problem of violence.  Now, similar actions are to be done in the name of “school security,” and “preventing terrorism.”

[NOTE: this is an edited version of a paper presented to the Halifax International Symposium On Media And Disinformation, June 30th – July 4th, 2004, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.]

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