What is dumber than a school district? A rock
Smarter than the principal
Has Big Brother already arrived?
Wed Apr 05, 2006 at 05:38:07 AM PDT
Picture this. You're at work one day and your phone rings. It's the principal at your teenager's school. You need to leave work and come to the school right away. When you arrive, there is your son, two policement and the principal waiting. Your son is about to be expelled for making terrorist threats. Your mind reels. Your son is a good student, well liked by everyone, an athlete and a musician. The two of you are close. This can't be true. You ask for an explanation.
You are told that the authorities have determined that some song lyrics your child posted on his page at MySpace.com, have keywords that have aroused suspicion. The police mention that the song contains the words "worldwide" and talk about "the last man standing," and several other terms referring to violent struggle. The police will not say how they happened to find out about this page, but implied it was brought to their attention as a result of a routine search that was being conducted. You recall your son showed you the page some time ago, and you remember you had not read anything you found alarming. The song lyrics the police referred to were written by members of a popular black metal band.
You are told that if you would like to dispute the expulsion from school, you will need to call the superintendent of schools, and make your case to him.
Otherwise, your son cannot return. In addition, you must call the emergency mobile response team that intervenes in psychiatric emergencies in the community -- they determine whether psychiatric hospitalization is appropriate and can initiate commitment proceedings.
You go home and follow these instructions to the letter. You know your child is innocent but you do as you are told.
Does this sound far-fetched? With identifying details modified to protect
confidentiality, this happened exactly as I relate it two weeks ago in a suburb of a major metropolitan area on the east coast. I know because I was called in to make the mental health assessment on the child, as part of my profession as a clinical social worker. I wrote that the child in no way posed a threat to himself or others, and that he had no recognizable mental disorder.
Ultimately, this child escaped psychiatric hospitalization, and the superintendent of schools agreed to allow him to return to school.
The family stated to me that the police were careful not to be specific but they gave the distinct impression that there had been a general search on the internet for certain key words, by whom and for what purpose was not stated. Perhaps the family is mistaken; perhaps a fellow student complained. But the emphasis by the police on key words seems to favor the argument that this was the result of some larger data mining expedition. The NSA, Homeland Security, the local police department -- all three working together? Who knows?
Many serious concerns are raised by this case. I wonder how many other children this is happening to, and if their parents will stand up for them and if the professionals called in to evaluate these children are competent. The potential for abuse is staggering.
Also, when did the police become judge and jury in this country? If the child did something wrong, he needed to be charged and the case brought before a judge. There is an assumption of guilt in this case, without any attempt to institute judicial review. Where are the safeguards for this person's civil liberties? An expulsion from school could mark his record for life, not to mention undermine his efforts to receive an education.
And, of course, this has implications for anyone who uses the internet for anything. And that means all of us. The affect on free speech is chilling, in my opinion.
This all seems like something that could only happen in a police state. Is this what we have come to in this country? The strongest weapon we have against this kind of thing is knowledge and social action. We need to sound an alarm before things get completely out of control. It's not just the "bad guys," that are being spied upon, it turns out. It might even be our kids.
I don't think this is a case of data mining. The NSA is not working with school districts to prevent Columbines. What I think this has to do with is a school administrator doing a search for students on My Space, checking the site, and calling the cops.
Homeland Security isn't going to call local cops. They come directly to your house and talk to you. The school district would.
It is far more likely this was generated locally, and the "keywords" are ones developed locally to demonstrate signs of a troubled teen.
The parents need to get a lawyer and ask exactly how and why their son's site came up as a matter for the school. The reason I say this is that school districts often overstep their bounds, and threatening expulsion and psychiatric treatment is a severe overreaction for song lyrics, and the only way to find out is to get a lawyer and start asking questions.
If it was the feds, you would know. The Men in Black have a way of making an impression.
The Student Law Press Center deals with cases like this all the time. Schools banning kids from graduation, withdrawing recommendations and other actionable things which can lead to five figure judgments or higher. The only way to lose a case like this is if you make specific threats.
So instead of worrying about the NSA, I'd worry about what the school district and principal are up to.
posted by Steve @ 9:32:00 AM