Community Colleges and the Challenge of Violent Extremism

By: David J. Smith, May 1, 2015

Consider these three recent events.

In the first case, a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi kills his college work-study supervisor. The killer claims to hate gays, and killed his boss because he was gay.

In the second case, two brothers of Muslim Chechen background set off bombs at an international marathon, killing three and injuring another 260. The motivation for the acts: revenge for U.S. actions against Muslims.

And in the third case, Somali students studying at a local college recognize their common goal of becoming members of a violent Jihadist group in the Middle East. They attempt to travel to join the group, but are stopped by federal authorities.

The first case took place recently in North Carolina. The man charged with first-degree murder was Kenneth Morgan Stancil, III. The second case can be easily identified as the Tsarnaev brothers, responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings. The third case was uncovered recently with the arrest of six Minnesota students of Somali background attempting to join the Islamic State.

The primary similarity among these events is that they involve cases of violent extremism. The acts of a neo-Nazi might be considered in a different category as those of radical Jihadism. Where the former are considered hate crimes and grouped with acts of white nationalists, Klansmen, and racist skinheads, the latter is often considered politically motivated and inspired by Islamic fundamentalism. But both forms can be just as deadly.

Another comparison is offered.   Stancil was a student at Wayne Community College where the crime was committed, while Tamerlan Tsarnaev had attended Bunker Hill Community College (Dzhokhar Tsarnaev attended the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth). And some of the Somali students were enrolled at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

I don’t mean to suggest that these community colleges were at fault in the tragedies that followed. As open enrollment institutions, community colleges have no means of vetting the political views or social values of students. Often the application process is a token one. Unlike 4-year institutions, there is no SAT or ACT required, nor a written application requiring students to share their life goals, be it to be a doctor or lawyer, or spread extremist views.

The process that one goes through in becoming radicalized as a neo-Nazi or Jihadist varies with one’s environment; family, cultural, and religious influences; and economic circumstances. However, it is safe to say that in the diverse populations that are drawn to community colleges there will invariably be individuals who could develop extremist and anti-social outlooks.     In my teaching experiences in a community college, I was at times struck by the narrow-minded opinions of some students that though not extreme, did expose views that given the right conditions could lead to something more troubling.

Many community colleges are seeing rising student populations from parts of the world that are affected by violent conflict.   Students are often torn between allegiance to their homeland and cultural and religious ways of life, and the modernity that is part of America.   Many adjust well, finding balance between the two worlds and graduate, start a career and family, and contribute to the greater good. Others struggle, and are influenced by views that lead them down the road to violent extremism. With the attention today on radical Islam, community colleges with large Muslim populations are most susceptible to negative influences.

In addition, many communities continue to suffer from economic and social distress. Unemployment is high, and upward mobility is limited.   These communities are often rural, and lack the cultural and ethnic diversity that might help promote tolerance. Lacking education and access to accurate information on the reasons for their circumstances, people will create scapegoats. Ignorance can lead to anti-social behavior such as bullying, and in some cases violence. And individuals holding these views and engaging in this behavior may find themselves in community college.

Often referred to as “democracy’s colleges,” community colleges need to commit themselves in a serious way to solving the social ills that impact our local, national, and global communities.   Community colleges have a responsibility to ensure that students feel welcome and safe, embrace values of civic responsibility, and develop skills that prepare them to succeed in a diverse and borderless world. This needs to be a major effort with national community college groups playing a role. It has important implications for global and national security. Those coming from parts of the world or parts of U.S. where violence is perceived as an appropriate means need to be exposed to nonviolent and socially acceptable methods for change. The notion of democracy is more than a form of government, it means a society that is respectful of differences, promotes peaceful avenues for dealing with change, and seeks to reduce anti-social and extreme views and behaviors. Community colleges are singularly in a position to take this on today.

Published by David J. Smith

I am a career coach, consultant, and head of a not for profit - the Forage Center - that offers humanitarian education training. I also teach at George Mason University and Drexel University. A one time lawyer, I spent many years teaching in a community college where I was a Fulbright U.S. Scholar teaching in Estonia. I'm the author of Peace Jobs: A Student's Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (IAP 2016). I've been married to my best friend for over 31 years and we have two well adjusted adult children who teach me something new everyday. I live in Rockville, Maryland.

One thought on “Community Colleges and the Challenge of Violent Extremism

  1. Reblogged this on David J. Smith, JD, MS and commented:

    I wrote this piece in 2015 after a series of violent events where the perpetrators were community college students. In light of this weekend’s events where the both assailants at Dayton and El Paso were from community colleges, it is worth reposting and considering again.


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