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Below is a reflection of the “Combating Hate and Extremism: Fostering Inclusion in our Schools and Communities” conference that took place on March 23, 2018.


On March 23, 2018, Operation250 and their partners, the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, The University of Massachusetts Lowell, and Middlesex Partnership for Youth, hosted a conference for school teachers, school administrators, law enforcement, public officials, and community leaders titled, “Combating Hate and Extremism: Fostering Inclusion in our Schools and Communities.” Those present learned and engaged in discussions on violent extremism, online threats, and the role all of these individuals, as stake holders, have in preventing violent extremism among youth. The conference hosted a full-day of panels and presenters on a variety of topics from a range of disciplines.

                The day began with introductions to the problem facing society today, by Secretary Daniel Bennett from the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and Chief Richard Smith, the Vice President at-large of the International Association of Chief of Police. The introduction to this problem highlighted the reality of hate crimes in Massachusetts, as well as the role that communities can play in fighting hate and prejudice.

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                The keynote for the event was Nicola Benyahia (right), the founder and operator of Families for Life in the United Kingdom. Nicola’s son, Rasheed, was radicalized by ISIS recruiters in 2015. She described his up-bringing and teenage years to be “normal”, before his disappearance in 2015 when he left to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. She recalls receiving phone calls and texts from her son while he was in Syria. However each interaction she had with him, she believed to be scripted before he died on the Syria and Iraq border in 2015. Nicola has since begun her own work with Families for Life, working with children and parents who are struggling with the manifestations of radicalization and extremism in their own lives. She ended her presentation with the discussing the need she sees for all stake holders to closely work together, and she discussed the importance of community programs in addressing extremism today.

                Following Nicola’s powerful presentation, author and analyst on extremism, J.M. Berger, and Senior Quality and Outcomes Specialist with the Ministry of Justice in the United Kingdom, Ian Elliott, Ph.D., sat on a panel to discuss the threats that exist online today. J.M. Berger spoke from a predominately extremism and terrorist recruiting standpoint, while Ian Elliott described his years of research pertaining to sexual grooming and offenders online. Both panelists took questions from the audience, each from their unique perspective on how to address online threats. J.M. mentioned “cutting off the funnel” of terrorists’ propaganda online, and the relation of “in-groups” and “out-groups” to extremism. These ideas were complimented by Dr. Elliott’s discussion of working together (educators, law enforcement, and community initiatives) to address the threats online, saying that proper collaboration and the understanding of why or why not people engage in risky online behavior will be a solution to many of the problems we are finding both online and in the real world. This was complimented by a panel later in the day that hosted Detective Lieutenant James Duggan from the Massachusetts State Police and James Forest, Ph.D. on law enforcement’s role in addressing threats online. The practices of law enforcement in addressing online threats and extremism one of the topics of discussion, a point rising saying that countering violent extremism is work that can be done before the threat makes it to law enforcement.

J.M. Berger (left), author and analyst on extremism; with Ian Elliott (right), Senior Outcomes and Quality Specialist with the Ministry of Justice discussing the online threat

J.M. Berger (left), author and analyst on extremism; with Ian Elliott (right), Senior Outcomes and Quality Specialist with the Ministry of Justice discussing the online threat

                Arie Perliger, Ph.D. spoke on the violent far-right in America today, what their beliefs are, and their trend of growth moving forward. His discussion broke the American far-right down between three different sections, each unique to their beliefs and goals. The rise of hate crimes and prominence of groups around the United States were each topics of discussion, as well as their increased growth on online discussion boards and popular social media sites.

                Founder and CEO of EdVenture Partners, Tony Sgro, spoke on the importance of youth innovation, his work heading the Peer-2-Peer program with the Department of Homeland Security and, more recently, the Anti-Defamation League, and ways for teachers to become involved in addressing problems facing everyone in the community. Tony and EdVenture are co-sponsors of the Peer-2-Peer program, a student led innovation program that arms students around the world with a platform to challenge extremism. Tony highlighted some of their previous campaigns from all over the world and future plans by his company to work with universities and high schools to insight student innovation.

                This was promptly followed by Operation250. Tyler Cote, Director of Education, and Nicolette San Clemente, Director of Operations, presented on their organization, their previous work with teachers and students, and the ways to address two problems Op250 has identified, poor online behavior and violent extremism. The presentation discussed problems they have seen in their research on the current education system to violent extremism and online safety education. They then explained their carefully designed model for engaging with students and teachers in schools on these topics. For more information on the presentation and their school engagement, download the free Educator’s Guide on their ‘Starting the Conversation’ page on their online platform.

                Fellow CVE organizations in the area, Parents4Peace, represented by David Phillippi, and One World Strong, represented by David Fortier spoke on a panel after. David Phillippi discussed his organization’s efforts to help families and concerned individuals who believe they may have a friend of family member who is radicalized. Through training and their network, they are able to help friends and family properly address the violent extremism issue that is affecting those around them. David Fortier and his organization, One World Strong, is a network of Boston Marathon Bombing survivors who help others effected by terrorism. His work has included mentoring and mediating the pain and struggle that comes along with being a victim to terrorism. The panel addressed the critical role that non law enforcement organizations, such as these two CVE organizations, play in preventing and addressing terrorism and extremism.

                One of the top experts in the field of terrorism pedagogy, Dr. James J.F. Forest presented to the teachers on how to teach the difficult topic in classrooms. Some teachers raised concerns about the age of their students and properly teaching such a complex and sensitive subject, to which Dr. Forest explained some of the lessons that are used to deal with bullying, the holocaust, and other sensitive topics that have become part of the popular curriculum today. Additionally, he raised the concern of “see something, say something”, and the lack of clarity about what ‘seeing something’ means, a gap he thinks is critical to address in this effort. He continued by saying if this can be taught properly, the reality of a threat and what it entails can be better understood, and therefore addressed going forward, making society safer.

                The final presentation of the day was by Joel Busher, Ph.D., of Coventry University in the United Kingdom. His work and research related to the effectiveness of the Prevent program in schools in the U.K. was presented, shining a light on what can be done for CVE school interventions in America. Dr. Busher raised concerns about the effectiveness of mandating CVE interventions in schools, and the importance of properly addressing violent extremism without stigmatizing specific groups of people. Teachers and social workers in the U.K. have concerns about speaking up too much, not speaking up at all, having difficult conversations, and actually addressing all forms of extremism. These lessons, and more are just some of the initial takeaways in his study of the Prevent program. A link to his report can be found here.

                This is the completion of the “Combating Hate and Extremism: Fostering Inclusion in our Schools and Communities” conference review. .



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