November 10, 1999 | Commentary on Crime
Tell me, does your teenager ever dress sloppily? Feel isolated? Get average grades? Listen to music with violent lyrics? If so, perhaps you think he or she is going through the normal pangs of adolescence. But the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) has a different view: Your son or daughter is a potential felon whose every word and deed should be tracked by school officials.
The first week of December, BATF will roll out in 25 schools a national field program that the agency says will help identify children at risk of committing violent acts. The program offers an updated version of "Mosaic 2000," a computer system government agencies have used for years to profile potentially dangerous individuals. BATF officials see Mosaic as a high-tech way of furthering their mission to "effectively contribute to a safer America by reducing the future number and cost of violent crimes."
It's understandable, in the wake of the school shootings in Littleton, Colo., and elsewhere, that government officials and school administrators want to find a way to prevent future violence. But even if Mosaic can be reliably adapted for use in grade schools and high schools throughout the country-a proposition some education professionals doubt-it seems likely the program will wind up targeting innocent kids.
Here's how it works: Mosaic's computer-assisted evaluation system presents a series of questions and a range of possible answers. Your son's or daughter's answers are rated on a scale of 1 (low potential for violence) to 10 (high potential for violence). School officials then make a "threat assessment" using statistical information gathered from a large database.
The future felon, according to Mosaic's web page, is likely to be a boy of above-average intelligence who presents a normal appearance. Questions include whether there's a gun in the child's home or any friend's home, whether the child is a victim of "abuse," whether he has any interest in themes of power and violence, whether he shows any social isolation, whether he keeps secrets from adults, and whether he has unstable self-esteem.
Anyone casting such a broad net may indeed capture a future violent child, but many otherwise normal kids will be unfairly tagged as well-just as nets designed to catch tuna also catch dolphins. As Kevin Dwyer, president of the National Association of School Psychologists, warns in a recent U.S. News & World Report article, Mosaic uses generalized profiles that could apply to any kid stricken with nothing more serious than normal teenage angst.
Indeed, applying to children profiling techniques normally reserved for criminals, without any evidence that such methods can successfully predict "future" criminals, is a large step to take in a free society. Profiles are clumsy tools, and while Mosaic may improve upon techniques used haphazardly by well-meaning school officials, it could still get things wrong. With a sophisticated-looking computer model, an innocent child could have suspicious adults tracking him simply because he chased the girls at recess, picked the wings off a dragonfly, or enjoyed a game of laser tag at a classmate's birthday party.
Then there are the important unanswered questions about the program. For example, will a score be assigned to each kid, or just to those identified as possible future felons? If a child is given a high score, will parents be notified of the heightened scrutiny their child is drawing? Does Mosaic's manufacturer have any experience predicting which children will turn violent? What happens with the Mosaic results-are they expunged at some later date or stored permanently? And how will this program differ from the 117 other federal programs (annual price tag: $4.4 billion) currently aimed at at-risk youth?
Don't misunderstand: Like any parent, I want safe schools. But families, not federal agents, are best equipped to spot and solve behavioral problems. If there's no exact science to raising a child of character, how can we pretend there's a diagnostic tool that can vet potentially violent children? The fact is, no federal program-especially one that raises serious constitutional questions about privacy and civil liberties-can substitute for active parental involvement in a child's school.
Unfortunately, parents will now have to contend with BATF agents convinced that Mosaic can usher in a violence-free future. "It's a wonderful tool that has a great deal of potential, and I hope it's properly used by the schools," said BATF agent Andrew L. Vita. But hoping is not enough. And Mosaic's potential-at least for mischief-is already becoming apparent.
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