Civil Liberties

Mental Detector

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Has Johnny threatened another student or a teacher? Does he write dark poetry? Or maybe he plays too much Doom? In Los Angeles County, some schools aren't just noting such behavior. At the behest of the district attorney, they're testing a computer program that they think will help them identify potentially violent students. Called Mosaic 2000, the profiling program asks 42 questions about a kid and then figures out–"scientifically," of course–whether his anti-social ways constitute an "escalating pattern" of problem behavior.

The district attorney's office insists that the information won't be used in a sinister way. In fact, a D.A. spokeswoman says each individual's data will be deleted after the information has been entered and an evaluation completed.

Maybe L.A. schools will choose to store the information Mosaic 2000 gleans, and maybe they won't. But other school districts around the country are saving that type of information for later use. In Wallingford, Connecticut, teachers and administrators are keeping files on troubled students–not just to find the already violent ones, but to pick out those "predisposed" to violence. Schools in Granite City, Illinois, are gathering the names of "at-risk" students, which can simply mean students who watch questionable movies or write bleak fiction.

Not surprisingly, this trend has raised the hackles of civil libertarians, particularly the American Civil Liberties Union. "We're concerned about decisions made to discipline students based on the fact that they fit a profile that might include information as disparate as what movies they watch and books they read and whether parents have guns in the home," the ACLU's Ann Beeson told The Christian Science Monitor.

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