Thursday, I flew to Charlotte to ask executives of the Pinkerton Special Services Group to scrap or modify WAVE America, a "school safety" Web site that encourages schoolkids to anonymously turn in classmates they consider dangerous. We brawled politely for hours over chicken salad, iced tea and fries about school safety, oddball profiling, privacy and reality. Although righteously armed with some amazing and eloquent e-mailed screeds, reports, quotes, studies and pleas from Slashdotters, my expectations were low. I returned with a penetrating glimpse into the corporatist soul. (Read more).
Dawn, Jim, Shannon and I sat down around a conference table in a tightly-secured office building south of downtown Charlotte, N.C. on a brilliant spring day. From the window, we could see the hills of South Carolina in one direction, the towers of downtown in the other. A collection of Pinkerton baseball caps filled a wooden shelf.
If anybody had told me that I would be munching chicken salad sandwiches and fries with executives from the Pinkerton Corporation, the largest security concern on the planet, arguing about kids, violence, oddball profiling and the Net, I would have refused to believe it. But that's the Net for you. Jim was a Pinkerton senior veep, Dawn and Shannon, the Web developer and site architect, respectively.
Jim was courteous, but clearly exasperated.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a highly critical column here about a WAVE (Working Against Violence Everywhere) America Web site developed by the Pinkerton Services Group under contract to the state of North Carolina and soon to go national. It offered an anonymous toll-free number, so schoolkids could turn in classmates they believed were acting strangely or dangerously. After the column appeared, Jim revealed, WAVE America received more than 70,000 e-mails and a few mail bombs, and repelled a number of assaults on their system firewalls. Jim had clearly never heard of Slashdot before all this, and he was still struggling to figure out exactly what it was or why he had to pay attention to it. This Net furor had clearly put a bit of a cloud over Pinkerton's ambitious plan to peddle WAVE America all over the United States in response to the post-Columbine school-violence hysteria. My guess was that this meeting was Dawn and Shannon's idea.
I'd flown to Charlotte, against what I knew were hopeless odds, to persuade Pinkerton to trash WAVE America . We argued for more than three hours behind closed doors. Clearly, the flap over the Web site was something Pinkerton wanted resolved if possible. Jim said the company hoped to set up anonymous toll-free "safety" and anti-violence hotlines across the country to relieve unnerved and overburdened school districts of the responsibility of monitoring students who might be disturbed or dangerous.
Although I write often about corporatism and its unhappy impact on free speech and culture, I had rarely penetrated so deep into the belly of the beast, nor felt so affirmed and unnerved by what I saw there. These were perfectly nice people I was meeting with, and they were unwaveringly embarked on what I believe is an awful course. Corporatism doesn't allow for moral notions like right or wrong, however. Corporatism (which is not the same thing as capitalism or corporations) has one ideology: successful, profitable marketing. Corporatism doesn't like controversy, because it, potentially at least, can scare off or offend potential customers. That's why I was there. I would be reminded of this 20 times over the next few hours. Ethical arguments, like peas off an M-1 tank, failed to penetrate.
It's hard to imagine going into any confrontation better prepared. I felt righteously equipped with the usual brilliant assortment of eclectic e-mail, screeds, quotes, citations, studies, suggestions and encouragements from Slashdotters. The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice had sent me some stats -- school homicides declined 40% in a single year, from l998 to l999. Students have a one-in-two-million chance of being killed in school, even though the public thinks it's likely to happen.
Computer engineer Chris Burke of the University of Michigan sent me a wonderful set of applied criterion measuring the probability that children considered dangerous actually will be. Chris's criteria are too complex to detail here, but he concluded that the probability that someone who meets the criterian actually is potentially dangerous turns out to be surprisingly low. "If we assume that the number of dangerous students is 1/25000 -- which is ridiculously high, but for the sake of argument I'll use it ... then only 6.7 per cent will be dangerous. Which means that 92.3% of the time you will be harassing innocent people." Reading this aloud to the Pinkerton people was one of the highlights of my life.
Meredith Dixon and many others e-mailed me about Todd Strasser's eerily prescient novel, The Wave, (which became a movie), about a junior high school teacher who uses anonymous reporting techniques reminiscent of the Hitler Youth to demonstrate how easily independent thought and moral conscience can be subordinated to an evil system. The book, published in 1981 and still available (Laurel Leaf Library: ISBN: 0440993717), was based on an actual incident in Palo Alto in l969. The Pinkerton folks were not happy to hear of this antecedent name for their cheeful, up-with-America, let's-promote-some-respect Web site. Nor were they impresed by my repeated arguments that every repressive political system in the 20th century -- Nazism, Communism, Fascism, Apartheid -- featured anonymous reporting -- especially by children -- as a cornerstone tool in their efforts to subjugate dissidents. The idea that this might not be the way to teach citizenship in a democratic society didn't seem to make much of an impression.
Joey Maier e-mailed me this quote from former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: "The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding." If anything captured the spirit of WAVE America, that was it.
A Slashdot editor and writer urged me to ask Pinkerton what remedies students and parents would have against false accusations. (The answer: None. Pinkerton doesn't make accusations, they just pass along information. That wasn't the company's problem, the execs said. Nor were any misuses of anonymously reported information by the schools that received it).
I also brought this message: "When I was a teenager, I didn't want people to listen to me because they might be afraid of what I might do," chromatic wrote on Threads. "I wanted people to listen to me because they cared about me and could identify with the way I was feeling and the thoughts I was thinking. Don't alienate young people even further in the guise of helping them. Please."
Even as I was searching for one of my favorite Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn quotes, Jamie McCarthy e-mailed it to me: It's from The Gulag Archipelago, his epic story of Stalin's concentration camps: "... In every village there were people who in one way or another had personally gotten in the way of the local activists. This was the perfect time to settle accounts with them of jealousy, envy, insult. A new word was needed for all these new victims as a class -- and it was born. By this time it had no 'social' or 'economic' content whatsoever, but it had a marvelous sound: podkulachnik -- 'a person aiding the kulaks.' In other words, I consider you an accomplice of the enemy. And that finishes you!'"
I confess to being buoyed by these smart, eloquent messages and citations, which I read and re-read on the flight to North Carolina. I was especially happy to be writing for a site where so many people -- hundreds -- could send such messages, and had such passionate perspective on what freedom really means, in a culture where it's constantly trampled and manipulated for profit, ratings, political gain or cultural power. Somewhere deep in my consciousness was the naive (or just plain dumb, maybe) belief that the Pinkerton execs would hear these messages, experience an epiphany and abandon WAVE America on the spot.
What emerged instead was as strange a cultural stand-off as one might imagine, a mix of the fascinating -- it was amazing to have a face-to-face confrontation with executives of the storied Pinkerton company (the writer Dashiell Hammett was a Pinkerton man, and the company had a bloody history of strike-breaking around the turn of the century) yet it was innately futile, and we all soon knew it. Over the sandwiches and iced tea, which hardly any of us touched, we each epitomized our distinctly opposite sides of a cultural chasm. Shannon and Dawn (given the volume of hostile e-mail Pinkerton was getting, I've decided not to use their full names) let Jim do the policy talking.
If there was any comfort to be drawn from the encounter, I suspect it would have to be from the fact that it was taking place. Voices on the Net had reached deep into a company that wasn't exactly famous for being interactive. That was something new.
These were pleasant, articulate, reasonable sounding -- and profoundly intractable -- people. We weren't speaking from the same sensibility or history or even using the same language. We butted heads all afternoon, but it was an odd argument in that scrapping WAVE America was never really on the table, and it was clear the company wasn't particularly interested in refuting any of my arguments, or those of the people who had e-mailed me theirs. I wouldn't swear that they disagreed. It simply didn't matter. The point was, there was a market for school-safety programs like this, and if Pinkerton didn't pursue them, somebody else would. The corporatist ethic doesn't allow for relinquihing potentially lucrative markets to competitors, any more than it does for conventional notions of right or wrong. In that sense, the meeting was exhausting and, probably, largely pointless. If there was leverage, it was in the fact that Pinkerton clearly wanted to go forward with its program in the least controversial way -- another corporatist hallmark.
I argued that WAVE America was simply wrong. That it was neither necessary, since the amount of school violence had been insanely exaggerated, nor effective -- kids could hardly be expected to accurately gauge the emotional or mental states of their classmates. I also argued that it was dangerous, that anonymous reporting was one of the primary tools of every evil political system in modern times. I reminded them that some of the smartest, most interesting and ultimately successful kids often experienced extreme and systematic harassment and brutality for being different, alienated or otherwise non-normal. That if educators, politicians or private corporations like Pinkerton really cared about school safety, they would do something to protect these outcasts.
The experience, in many respects, resembled talking to an affable stone wall. I did encounter more flexibility than I expected. Yes, my hosts acknowledged, they knew that school violence was dropping sharply (more about this later), but so what? It was still a problem, politicians like those in North Carolina were demanding some action, and so were parents, journalists and educators. Schools didn't have the resources or security skills to police themselves. Somebody had to respond, and Pinkerton was in the "secure environment" business, so why not step up to the plate?
Jim told me something I hadn't quite grasped: the anonymous reporting culture is a growing business, now deeply entrenched in the United States, a result of the victimization movement and lawsuit epidemic rampant for nearly a generation. Encouraged by federal and local governments, and many corporate and educational institutions, hotlines operate all over the country to report date rape, sexual harassment, abuse, and other forms of brutality and insensitivity. Since so many institutions in the United States are now presumed to be unresponsive to the needs of one group or another, privately-administered anonymous reporting hotlines are spreading. Pinkerton itself runs more than 800 such lines. It was inevitable, said Jim, that they would move into schools, and that Pinkerton would extend its security expertise and set them up. I found this amazing, which made Jim shake his head and shrug. I was transfixed by the idea of a democratic country whose response to social problems was to create an entire new tradition of informing. It had been happening for some time, he told me.
Yes, my hosts further acknowledged, they were aware that anonymous reporting was a staple ingredient of some of the world's most repressive regimes. Until the Wave America flap, however, Pinkerton had received no complaints about its hotlines. Privacy and security are the company's cornerstone marketing values, Jim insisted, and it's very careful about screening and disseminating the information it receives. Pinkerton's credibility depends on it.
Basically, the Pinkerton people spouted the now-familiar rationale for behavior like this: "Hey, don't blame us. A North Carolina Task Force came up with this, got the governor's blessing, and somebody is going to run it.Why not us? We know how, and if we don't do it, somebody else will."
Fine, I countered, but what about the schools that receive these forwarded anonymous tips. What about their privacy rules? Their security? Do these reports stay in files forever, or go into computerized law enforcement agency files? Are they destroyed after a given time, especially if they prove false or unfounded? Couldn't a kid be wrongly -- and anonymously -- on file, never know it, yet find this information in government or corporate files years later? Here, the Pinkerton people just shrugged. That was the school's problem. But, I persisted, didn't they just say that schools didn't have the resources to run such programs, which is why Pinkerton was involved in the first place? More shrugs.
Reports will be carefully screened and analyzed by professionals, I was assured.Only the most serious calls, involving serious violence -- rape, assault, possible crimes with guns -- were forwarded to school officials; the rest were not passed along at all. What happened to the not-passed-along reports? Nothing; they stay within Pinkerton's secure walls. For how long? Nobody knew.
Pinkerton was unhappy with some of the media portrayal of some of WAVE America's more controversial features.
Initially, the press reported (and I passed along) that kids were being offered cash and other gifts as incentives to turn in their angry, depressed or trouble classmates. But although the site clearly did offer gifts -- a computer, CD's -- the Pinkerton execs denied that they had or would offer cash or other goodies as a direct incentive for reporting their peers.
Things get a bit murky here, as the site has been hurriedly altered and re-designed in the past week or so. Under "Fun Stuff," the web site now has a message that simply says: "Coming Soon." Clearly, gifts will be used as incentives to draw kids onto the site, and reward them for participating, even if kids can get them without reporting anyone. But Pinkerton explained, there may be marketing tie-ins with companies promoting school safety in the future. Let's see: no direct reward for turning in a classmate, but gifts and prizes encouraging kids to use a site that offers anonymous reporting. A fine line.
The execs seized somewhat obsessively on this point as an example of how the program's goals -- to promote respect and school safety, and to provide a last-resort outlet for reporting of serious crimes in a country where schools are overwhelmed, underfunded and rattled by recurring media and political hysterias -- had been distorted by people like me.
"We understand that you disagree with the program," Jim said, "but we expect you to be responsible and accurate." Fair enough. But I pointed out repeatedly that the goodie give-aways were incidental, never the main issue.
The central question, I argued, was that the Net culture included, even embraced, kids who are brainy, individualistic, sometimes-alienated and rebellious, and often outside the norm in their values, attitudes and behavior. These kids suffer enormously at the hands of hostile peers, unknowing teachers, clueless parents, journalists and politicians. It's hard to imagine how WAVE America would benefit them in any way, but simple to foresee how it might still provide another forum in which they'd be branded -- anonymously, no less -- dangerous.
Pinkerton conceded that the "symptoms" of dangerous behavior its site had listed earlier were too vague. These initial "early signs of violence" included: Suddenly has bad grades or little interest in school; Expresses uncontrolled anger; Has excessive feelings of isolation and/or rejection; Is easily angered by minor things. Dawn and Shannon showed me their new, improved criteria, still under consideration and design and not yet up on the Web site. These new "warning signs," says Pinkerton, were provided by the American Psychological Association.
"If you see these immediate warning signs," WAVE America will announce, "violence is a serious possibility":
- loss of temper on a daily basis
- frequent physical fighting
- significant vandalism or property damage
- increase in use of drugs or alchohol
- increasing risk-taking behavior
- detailed plans to commit acts of violence.
- announcing threats or plans for hurting others
- enjoying hurting animals
- carrying a weapon
My response was that these symptoms were still awfully vague, and in any case that school kids weren't psychologists and shouldn't be asked to evaulate their peers emotional lives, or to try and differentiate between transitional depression or alienation and being potentially violent. What kind of risk-taking behavior? Agressive skateboarding? I still didn't understand why these weren't school or parental problems, rather than Pinkerton ones, or why the monitoring of emotional disturbance was being handed off to children. I still believed it was offensive and disturbing to put schoolkids in the position of anonymously turning in their classmates, enemies, and friends to an anonymous hotline run by a profit-making corporation with a vested interest -- and a classic conflict-of-interest -- in promoting the notion that schools were dangerous. This didn't promote safety, it subverted responsibility and democracy.
Besides, I added, many knowledgeable Constitutional scholars believe that the Supreme Court will eventually overturn police or other administrative actions based solely on anonymous reporting of crimes or potential crimes without supporting evidence. Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court overturned the arrest of a Florida man who was searched because of an anonymous tip and found to have a gun. This, the court said, violated Fourth Amendment strictures against unreasonable search and seizure; the police needed evidence beyond an anonymous report. Though kids are stripped of Constitutional rights in most American schools, it's hard to believe courts will ultimately uphold educational or police actions taken on the basis of anonymous calls. If they do, though, Pinkerton and its Web site will have succeeded in undermining a fundamental freedom.
The Pinkerton people did say they'd consider refining their "symptoms" still further. And they made the inevitable co-opting gesture: Would I be interested in working with Pinkertons on WAVE America, or in writing for the site? Would Rob Malda perhaps like to contribute something? I said "No" on my behalf, and giggled a bit at the idea of Cmdr Taco or his partner in crime, Hemos, as columnists for WAVE America. But if the site were going forward, I suggested, Pinkerton could at least set-up an e-mail account to receive and consider feedback from people involved in the issue. It might even consider assembling some sort of advisory panel to help safeguard the interests of the kids it affects.
I found WAVE America too exploitive, offensive and disturbing to participate in, but others can make their own decisions.
Still, I left the meeting discouraged by the spectre of a country where the emotional welfare of schoolkids, and the potential violence that emotionally disturbed kids might wreak, seem to have been turned over to profit-making security corporations rather than to teachers, guidance counselors, therapists, and parents. The Task Force in North Carolina that came up with this dunderheaded response to a complex social problem is the first candidate that should be reported on that hotline.
Last Sunday, nearly a year after the Columbine massacre, the New York Times finally got around to publishing an exhaustive look at "Rampage Killers." The paper profiled 102 killers in 100 rampage attacks in a computer-assisted study looking back more than 50 years and including the shootings at Littleton in l999. Four hundred and twenty-five people were killed and 510 people were injured in the attacks. The newspaper found -- and convincingly detailed -- what should have been obvious from the first. The most common thread in these horrific sprees isn't media, technology or culture, but mental illness: at least half of the killers shown signs of seriousl mental health problems. Also this week, the National Association of Attorneys General reported that the most important factor in preventing youth violence was a "stable, loving home." The group also reported numerous instances of bullying and harassment of schoolkids all across America because students wore unusual clothing or were taller, shorter or heavier than other kids. This rare outburst of sanity was almost completely ignored by the mainstream media. But since unstable and unloving parents have now been identified as a child safety issue, perhaps we need a new anonymous hotline so that kids can turn in their unstable or unloving moms and dads -- or their neighbor's mom and dad -- along with the angry classmate in the next row. It would seem to follow. And it would seem inevitable.
The Times' series is detailed and impressive. But it comes after years of hysterical media reporting linking violence among the young to pop culture and new media technologies -- TV, movies, computer gaming, the Net. More than 80% of all Americans, reported the Washington Post last year, believed the Internet was at least partly responsible for the killings at Columbine. The very idea that programs like WAVE America will alter this horrific reality is itself a mental health problem.
Was the trip worth it? I don't honestly know. I appreciated the Pinkerton people meeting with me, though it didn't cost them anything, other than a few hours and some sandwiches. (Slashdot paid my traveling expenses.) I made some points directly to the people who needed to hear it. They are well aware that thousands of people are watching them; that's a strong stimulus to behave. They're tightening up vague criteria and dropping the idea of of rewarding tipsters with cash, gifts or caps. They seemed to understand that abuse of the different is a safety issue, along with guns and assaults.
But the meeting also reinforced my growing belief that corporations like Pinkerton are inherently amoral. I'm sure their workers are kind to their spouses, pets and kids. But the Pinkerton people don't see morality as their concern, which, in a sane society, might be one reason not to turn issues like school safety and violence among the young over to private corporations. Theirs is a simple equation, a statement right from the contemporary corporatist heart: they perceive a profitable opportunity in the security market, one created not by them but by irresponsible journalists, lazy educators and exploitive politicians. Someone will fill it. Might as well be them.
Sunday, I received this e-mail from the head of Pinkerton's WAVE America Web Development team:
While here, you also suggested we get some input from the readers of slashdot to help us with the WAVE project. If you would be so kind, please include the email address [email@example.com] in your article. We hope the WAVE website will be used not only as a tool to aid in preventing school violence, but also as an educational hub where students, teachers and parents can go to collaborate. Any suggestions or constructive criticism about how to make the website better would be greatly appreciated.
The WAVE website is now, and probably always will be, a work in progress. We hope that with the help and suggestions of you and your readers, we will be able to build a website that will empower the students and give them a voice.
I know that you didn't agree with everything about the WAVE project, but hopefully when you left here, you were able to see that this isn't a "big brother" program, but rather an educational program that hopes to prevent school violence by teaching Resolve, Respect, and Responsibility."