Feature

The Perils of Profiling

Ambiguity and legal ramifications loom large as educators consider how to identify students inclined to commit violence by GIL-PATRICIA FEY, J. RON NELSON AND MAURA L. ROBERTS


A1993 report by the American Psychological Association on violent youth cast an enticing invitation to consider the use of student profiling when it stated: "Our schools and communities can intervene effectively in the lives of children and youth to reduce or prevent their involvement in violence. Violence involving youth is not random, uncontrollable or inevitable."

Today, under considerable pressure to demonstrate they are taking every possible action to ensure safety at schools in their communities, school leaders are turning to what they see as a promising prevention tool formerly reserved for criminal investigations--student profiling.

However, identifying students at risk of committing violence through the use of checklists of personal characteristics and behaviors is a strategy accompanied by plenty of unanswered questions, recognized weaknesses and serious implications for implementation. Deciding whether to profile elementary and secondary school students is a decision not to be made lightly.

Two Types
Criminal investigators and criminologists in the United States have used profiling since 1969 when the Federal Bureau of Investigation introduced it as an investigative strategy. Law enforcers view a profile as a "set of behavioral indicators forming a very characteristic pattern of actions or emotions that tend to point to a particular condition," according to Brent Turvey, a criminal profiler and partner in a forensics firm in Corpus Christi, Texas. To arrive at the characteristics that comprise a specific profile, a person’s behavior is compared to case studies and evidence from other profiles.

Despite its use over the past several decades, Turvey says criminal profiling is beset by several unresolved issues. These include lack of agreement regarding the basic information that a profile should account for, the appropriate uses of profiling, ethical and unethical conduct by profilers and whether the profiling process should be peer reviewed. These serious questions should give pause to educational leaders considering the use of profiling in schools.

Essentially, two types of profiling exist: inductive and deductive criminal profiling.

In inductive profiling, the profiler looks for patterns in the available data and infers possible outcomes--in the case of schools, possible acts of violence committed by students who fit the pattern. The strategy is used to predict behavior and apprehend potential offenders before they commit a crime. In criminology, inductive profiles include formal and informal studies of incarcerated criminals and public data sources, such as news media reports. General profiles, which can be assembled quickly, include general characteristics on a one- or two-page list.

However, the use of inductive profiling carries serious implications. First, the generalizations that are made to construct the profile stem from limited and often very small population samples. Inductive profiles also only take into account the characteristics of apprehended offenders and neglect offenders who are at large. Characteristics of non-apprehended offenders are likely to be missing from the profiles.

Another problem is that behavior and motivations are assumed to be constant over time in inductive profiling. For violence prediction among children, this assumption neglects the very nature of changes in children’s behavior during their developmental process over time.

The second method, deductive profiling, interprets forensic evidence from a crime to reconstruct behavior patterns, deduce offender characteristics, demographics, emotions and motivations.

Anyone who has read Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle has encountered deductive profiling. Holmes uses physical evidence, gut feelings and his work experience to deduce a profile of the criminal. Deductive profiling requires great skill and considerable effort.

Most FBI profiling is deductive in nature. However, while an offender for a particular crime might be identified successfully, deductive profiling cannot serve as a reliable base for generalizations and identifications of other offenders. Several researchers have pointed out repeatedly that a review of profiling use by the FBI clearly shows it is appropriate only for specific crimes and cases.

Discouraging Evidence
Would either profiling strategy be a useful tool for school leaders to use in identifying students prone to violence? Do we have a reliable knowledge base to apply either inductive or deductive profiling as a strategy in schools?

Could the crimes committed by the youths in Littleton, Jonesboro and Springfield have been predicted with the use of inductive profiling? Did we have previous incidents in other schools that pointed undoubtedly to the occurrence of these tragedies or allowed the construction of a profile that would have identified the students involved in the incidents?

The FBI already has applied deductive profiling to an analysis of the last six multiple-fatality shootings on school grounds to generate a list of common characteristics found among the perpetrators. Yet the federal investigators admit they aren’t yet prepared to construct a general behavioral profile that could be used to identify students at risk of committing violent acts.

Evidence about past profiling use in law enforcement is not encouraging. In the 1985 book, Mass Murder: America’s Growing Menace, authors Jack Levin and James Fox examine a survey of police agencies that had used profiling in traffic violations. The survey found profiles helpful in only 17 percent of the cases that were solved. Even highly regarded criminal profilers admit that profiling can fail miserably when it is done without expertise, facts or caution.

Behavioral Lists
Despite the lack of evidence about its efficacy, profiling seems to remain popular with police authorities and more recently has been promoted by the U.S. Department of Education and the National School Safety Center, a resource organization in Westlake Village, Calif., funded partly by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Profile lists already exist and are readily accessible to school leaders. In 1998, the U.S. Department of Education published "Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools." The guide includes a profile in the form of a checklist of early warning signs to help administrators identify youth at risk for violent behavior and actions. The NSSC published in 1998 its "Checklist of Characteristics of Youth Who Have Caused School-Associated Violent Deaths" (see resources).

Close inspection reveals the two lists are inconsistent and greatly diverge from one another. A point-by-point comparison shows they have only six points in common and differ on the majority of characteristics. This leaves school administrators with the daunting task of deciding which list to use and suggests little empirical evidence is available to make this task any easier or defensible in a court of law.

Another problem with the lists is the ambiguity of some items. Are such phrases as "excessive feelings of rejection," "tends to blame others" and "is on the fringe" measurable and indeed identifiable? In addition, many characteristics could be detected only in a setting where the teachers know their students as well as their own flesh and blood. How, for instance, does a high school teacher with a student load of 150 or more know the youngster’s preferences in TV shows, movies, music and reading materials? How does a teacher know whether the child’s experiences outside of school include access to firearms, witnessing of violence and animal cruelty?

In an ideal world teachers would know their students this well. Perhaps the answer for school leaders lies in restructuring large school populations and class sizes to personalize students’ experiences rather than turning to profiling in an environment that seems unsuited for its use.

In addition, both lists include cautionary statements that further underscore their problematic nature and weaknesses. The Department of Education publication acknowledges as much: "There is a real danger that early warning signs will be misinterpreted." There is a real danger that school professionals using the checklist will wrongfully identify students as potential offenders. Similarly, the National School Safety Center claims: "There is no foolproof system for identifying potentially dangerous students who may harm themselves and/or others." Yet the checklists are described as a promising starting point.

The ambiguity of the checklists is reflected in the lack of specific instructions for their use. For instance, how many of the warning signs and to what degree must a child exhibit them to be conclusively identified as a future violent offender?

Possibly most troubling is the potential to discriminate against certain groups of students and label and alienate children from other children and educators, thus producing consequences that are undesirable and unbearable in many ways. School leaders will have to decide whether they are willing to accept the risks associated with the use of these checklists. They also must decide whether schools are to become places where criminal investigative methods are part of the daily regimen.

Policy Implications
The implementation of profiling at schools will carry several implications for school policies and practices in three interrelated areas: provision of special services; school suspensions and expulsions; student rights and privacy laws.

  • Special services

     

    Special services will be in demand as students are identified through profiling as being at risk for committing violence. Will the children identified as being at risk receive all their instruction apart from the other children or will intervention programs be integrated into the regular school day for these youngsters? What will the interaction between these children and the other children in the school look like? What demands will be placed on school personnel, and will they be given the necessary training?

  • School Suspensions and expulsions

     

    Suspensions and expulsions will become two more prominent alternative strategies to deal with the students identified to be at risk for violence. School leaders will have to decide whether youngsters who exhibit the behavioral characteristics described in the profile would benefit from the exclusion from the education process or become more likely to commit violent acts if they are excluded from the school.

  • Student rights and privacy laws

     

    School leaders are sure to confront questions about rights of individuals under a system of student profiling. Stereotyping, discrimination and the wrongful identification of potential perpetrators are ethically unjustified, even if the intention is to protect children from harm.

    Student privacy rights are likely to be trampled through the use of profiling. School authorities could face legal action, as well as negative media attention, once a student is wrongfully identified as being at risk for committing violence.

    Will the kind of privacy invasion that profiling would bring with it be justifiable? Can we ensure no harm will be inflicted on children who are exposed to these procedures?

  • Beyond Pragmatism
    School leaders face difficult decisions about how best to prevent violence in response to the clamor from parents, politicians and public. With the existence of profiling lists, such as the ones in circulation from the Department of Education and the National School Safety Center, profiling appears to be an easy-to-use strategy that is at the fingertips of school leaders.

    The decision to use profiling reaches beyond pragmatic implementation issues and touches on the very core of what schools should and will look like. Its use carries serious implications. Profiling can be justified neither by deferring to a climate of public pressure nor by employing it as an emergency response to heightened concerns by parents and public about school safety.

    We need to keep searching for strategies that constitute more than a Band-Aid to a deep wound. If profiles were the solution to violence prevention, all prisoners would be guilty, all crimes would be solved and all future crimes would be prevented.

    Gil-Patricia Fey is a research assistant at Arizona State University, College of Education, Division of Policy Studies and Educational Leadership, Box 2411, Tempe, AZ. 85287. E-mail: gilfey@asu.edu. Ron Nelson is an associate professor of education and Maura Roberts is an assistant professor of education, both in the division of psychology in education at Arizona State University.

    Today, under considerable pressure to demonstrate they are taking every possible action to ensure safety at schools in their communities, school leaders are turning to what they see as a promising prevention tool formerly reserved for criminal investigations--student profiling.

    However, identifying students at risk of committing violence through the use of checklists of personal characteristics and behaviors is a strategy accompanied by plenty of unanswered questions, recognized weaknesses and serious implications for implementation. Deciding whether to profile elementary and secondary school students is a decision not to be made lightly.

    Two Types
    Criminal investigators and criminologists in the United States have used profiling since 1969 when the Federal Bureau of Investigation introduced it as an investigative strategy. Law enforcers view a profile as a "set of behavioral indicators forming a very characteristic pattern of actions or emotions that tend to point to a particular condition," according to Brent Turvey, a criminal profiler and partner in a forensics firm in Corpus Christi, Texas. To arrive at the characteristics that comprise a specific profile, a person’s behavior is compared to case studies and evidence from other profiles.

    Despite its use over the past several decades, Turvey says criminal profiling is beset by several unresolved issues. These include lack of agreement regarding the basic information that a profile should account for, the appropriate uses of profiling, ethical and unethical conduct by profilers and whether the profiling process should be peer reviewed. These serious questions should give pause to educational leaders considering the use of profiling in schools.

    Essentially, two types of profiling exist: inductive and deductive criminal profiling.

    In inductive profiling, the profiler looks for patterns in the available data and infers possible outcomes--in the case of schools, possible acts of violence committed by students who fit the pattern. The strategy is used to predict behavior and apprehend potential offenders before they commit a crime. In criminology, inductive profiles include formal and informal studies of incarcerated criminals and public data sources, such as news media reports. General profiles, which can be assembled quickly, include general characteristics on a one- or two-page list.

    However, the use of inductive profiling carries serious implications. First, the generalizations that are made to construct the profile stem from limited and often very small population samples. Inductive profiles also only take into account the characteristics of apprehended offenders and neglect offenders who are at large. Characteristics of non-apprehended offenders are likely to be missing from the profiles.

    Another problem is that behavior and motivations are assumed to be constant over time in inductive profiling. For violence prediction among children, this assumption neglects the very nature of changes in children’s behavior during their developmental process over time.

    The second method, deductive profiling, interprets forensic evidence from a crime to reconstruct behavior patterns, deduce offender characteristics, demographics, emotions and motivations.

    Anyone who has read Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle has encountered deductive profiling. Holmes uses physical evidence, gut feelings and his work experience to deduce a profile of the criminal. Deductive profiling requires great skill and considerable effort.

    Most FBI profiling is deductive in nature. However, while an offender for a particular crime might be identified successfully, deductive profiling cannot serve as a reliable base for generalizations and identifications of other offenders. Several researchers have pointed out repeatedly that a review of profiling use by the FBI clearly shows it is appropriate only for specific crimes and cases.

    Discouraging Evidence
    Would either profiling strategy be a useful tool for school leaders to use in identifying students prone to violence? Do we have a reliable knowledge base to apply either inductive or deductive profiling as a strategy in schools?

    Could the crimes committed by the youths in Littleton, Jonesboro and Springfield have been predicted with the use of inductive profiling? Did we have previous incidents in other schools that pointed undoubtedly to the occurrence of these tragedies or allowed the construction of a profile that would have identified the students involved in the incidents?

    The FBI already has applied deductive profiling to an analysis of the last six multiple-fatality shootings on school grounds to generate a list of common characteristics found among the perpetrators. Yet the federal investigators admit they aren’t yet prepared to construct a general behavioral profile that could be used to identify students at risk of committing violent acts.

    Evidence about past profiling use in law enforcement is not encouraging. In the 1985 book, Mass Murder: America’s Growing Menace, authors Jack Levin and James Fox examine a survey of police agencies that had used profiling in traffic violations. The survey found profiles helpful in only 17 percent of the cases that were solved. Even highly regarded criminal profilers admit that profiling can fail miserably when it is done without expertise, facts or caution.

    Behavioral Lists
    Despite the lack of evidence about its efficacy, profiling seems to remain popular with police authorities and more recently has been promoted by the U.S. Department of Education and the National School Safety Center, a resource organization in Westlake Village, Calif., funded partly by the U.S. Department of Justice.

    Profile lists already exist and are readily accessible to school leaders. In 1998, the U.S. Department of Education published "Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools." The guide includes a profile in the form of a checklist of early warning signs to help administrators identify youth at risk for violent behavior and actions. The NSSC published in 1998 its "Checklist of Characteristics of Youth Who Have Caused School-Associated Violent Deaths" (see resources).

    Close inspection reveals the two lists are inconsistent and greatly diverge from one another. A point-by-point comparison shows they have only six points in common and differ on the majority of characteristics. This leaves school administrators with the daunting task of deciding which list to use and suggests little empirical evidence is available to make this task any easier or defensible in a court of law.

    Another problem with the lists is the ambiguity of some items. Are such phrases as "excessive feelings of rejection," "tends to blame others" and "is on the fringe" measurable and indeed identifiable? In addition, many characteristics could be detected only in a setting where the teachers know their students as well as their own flesh and blood. How, for instance, does a high school teacher with a student load of 150 or more know the youngster’s preferences in TV shows, movies, music and reading materials? How does a teacher know whether the child’s experiences outside of school include access to firearms, witnessing of violence and animal cruelty?

    In an ideal world teachers would know their students this well. Perhaps the answer for school leaders lies in restructuring large school populations and class sizes to personalize students’ experiences rather than turning to profiling in an environment that seems unsuited for its use.

    In addition, both lists include cautionary statements that further underscore their problematic nature and weaknesses. The Department of Education publication acknowledges as much: "There is a real danger that early warning signs will be misinterpreted." There is a real danger that school professionals using the checklist will wrongfully identify students as potential offenders. Similarly, the National School Safety Center claims: "There is no foolproof system for identifying potentially dangerous students who may harm themselves and/or others." Yet the checklists are described as a promising starting point.

    The ambiguity of the checklists is reflected in the lack of specific instructions for their use. For instance, how many of the warning signs and to what degree must a child exhibit them to be conclusively identified as a future violent offender?

    Possibly most troubling is the potential to discriminate against certain groups of students and label and alienate children from other children and educators, thus producing consequences that are undesirable and unbearable in many ways. School leaders will have to decide whether they are willing to accept the risks associated with the use of these checklists. They also must decide whether schools are to become places where criminal investigative methods are part of the daily regimen.

    Policy Implications
    The implementation of profiling at schools will carry several implications for school policies and practices in three interrelated areas: provision of special services; school suspensions and expulsions; student rights and privacy laws.

  • Special services

     

    Special services will be in demand as students are identified through profiling as being at risk for committing violence. Will the children identified as being at risk receive all their instruction apart from the other children or will intervention programs be integrated into the regular school day for these youngsters? What will the interaction between these children and the other children in the school look like? What demands will be placed on school personnel, and will they be given the necessary training?

  • School Suspensions and expulsions

     

    Suspensions and expulsions will become two more prominent alternative strategies to deal with the students identified to be at risk for violence. School leaders will have to decide whether youngsters who exhibit the behavioral characteristics described in the profile would benefit from the exclusion from the education process or become more likely to commit violent acts if they are excluded from the school.

  • Student rights and privacy laws

     

    School leaders are sure to confront questions about rights of individuals under a system of student profiling. Stereotyping, discrimination and the wrongful identification of potential perpetrators are ethically unjustified, even if the intention is to protect children from harm.

    Student privacy rights are likely to be trampled through the use of profiling. School authorities could face legal action, as well as negative media attention, once a student is wrongfully identified as being at risk for committing violence.

    Will the kind of privacy invasion that profiling would bring with it be justifiable? Can we ensure no harm will be inflicted on children who are exposed to these procedures?

  • Beyond Pragmatism
    School leaders face difficult decisions about how best to prevent violence in response to the clamor from parents, politicians and public. With the existence of profiling lists, such as the ones in circulation from the Department of Education and the National School Safety Center, profiling appears to be an easy-to-use strategy that is at the fingertips of school leaders.

    The decision to use profiling reaches beyond pragmatic implementation issues and touches on the very core of what schools should and will look like. Its use carries serious implications. Profiling can be justified neither by deferring to a climate of public pressure nor by employing it as an emergency response to heightened concerns by parents and public about school safety.

    We need to keep searching for strategies that constitute more than a Band-Aid to a deep wound. If profiles were the solution to violence prevention, all prisoners would be guilty, all crimes would be solved and all future crimes would be prevented.

    Gil-Patricia Fey is a research assistant at Arizona State University, College of Education, Division of Policy Studies and Educational Leadership, Box 2411, Tempe, AZ. 85287. E-mail: gilfey@asu.edu. Ron Nelson is an associate professor of education and Maura Roberts is an assistant professor of education, both in the division of psychology in education at Arizona State University.