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FBI’s campaign against extremism hits nerve among K12 groups

The study of extremists: The new FBI website, “Don’t be a Puppet,” above, works almost like a video game, giving certain facts about extremism. Some education groups fear it might have unintended consequences.
The study of extremists: The new FBI website, “Don’t be a Puppet,” above, works almost like a video game, giving certain facts about extremism. Some education groups fear it might have unintended consequences.

The FBI is trying to prevent American youths from joining violent extremist groups—but some K12 groups worry it might unknowingly exacerbate bullying and bigotry in classrooms.

At the center of the FBI’s effort is a website with a video-game-like appearance. The primary imagery used on the site is of a wooden marionette, dangling by strings, surrounded by stage curtains.

The campaign, unveiled last winter and dubbed “Don’t Be a Puppet,” has prompted national education leaders and civil rights activists to speak out.

The FBI says it is reaching out to local districts to promote the campaign, says FBI spokesman Matthew Bertron.

While Don’t Be a Puppet purports to educate students and families about violent extremism, the AFT says it instead promotes bigotry and hatred, particularly toward students of Middle Eastern and Muslim backgrounds, by “creating a culture of animosity and mistrust.”

AFT President Randi Weingarten and AASA, The School Superintendents Association, want FBI Director James Comey to reconsider the program. On August 9, they wrote an open letter to Comey about the program’s potentially “chilling effect” on schools. And 18 other organizations have expressed concerns.

Opponents did not offer an alternative program to Don’t Be a Puppet, saying they want to discuss with the FBI the program’s negative consequences. Gabriel Vasquez, a spokesman for First Focus, one of the opponent groups, is asking the FBI to dismantle the program in public schools.

And Deborah A. Koolbeck, director of government relations for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, another opponent group, says the association supports AFT’s call for a discussion with the FBI.

Opponents add it appears to target only Islamist extremism and not other extremists, such as white supremacists.

In being so singularly focused on one group, “the campaign could encourage racial profiling against Middle Eastern and Muslim students and could lead to bullying, animosity and distrust after all the work we’ve done to stop bullying and to teach kids to accept everyone for who they are,” Weingarten stated in an email.

A call to duty?

With detailed, colorful graphics, the website looks like it could be a video game. Visitors could hover their cursors over words such as “Groupthink,” “Distorted Principles,” “Blame” and “Propaganda,” to learn more about them through quizzes and videos.

In a video message introducing visitors to the site, Comey says the intended audience is students in middle and high school. “We’ve seen a growing trend of violent extremist groups trying to recruit teenagers, especially over the internet,” Comey says in the video. “Drawn by false messages of power or glory, vulnerable young people can become puppets used to help spread a message of hate.”

So, Comey says, the FBI has a role in alerting citizens and fighting extremism: “Your job is to educate yourself, think critically and be aware of what is around you,” he says in the video.

Bertron says the FBI has no information on how many districts have used or are using the program in classroom lessons or as part of the curricula.

Meanwhile, he says, the FBI is aware of various groups’ concerns and plans to discuss it with AFT and AASA.

Michael Gagne is a freelance writer.