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BEAVERTON, Ore. -- An 18-year-old senior at Battle Ground High School in Washington state was immersed in a fighting video game with a couple of online friends in March when news broke about a violent shooter targeting New Zealand mosques.

The three friends, including one in Virginia and another in Britain, often frequented the chat platform Discord while playing Melty Blood, their favorite game. Sometimes they dabbled in extremist material -- like videos claiming that Jews control America -- that white supremacists have propagated via Discord in recent years, the student explained.

Intrigued by the attack, they quickly found the gunman's lengthy manifesto and an Instagram account that appeared to be his, so the student dashed off a message in the jargon of white supremacists. "WAR IS ON THE HORIZON WE SHALL NOT LOSE WE SHALL SURVIVE," he wrote, according to a screenshot.

Much to their astonishment, an answer popped up within 15 minutes: "This is my final message, this is my farewell." Soon afterward, the account went dark.

"I did make a stupid decision," the student later said in an interview, thinking, at the time, "Oh, God, I just messaged the shooter!"

The Washington state high school student, who asked to remain anonymous, never committed violence. But his activity drew the attention of authorities, including the FBI, according to a law enforcement official. His experience on Discord is just one example of how vulnerable adolescents can easily access and become targets of extremist material on the internet.

As more such material spills from the web to young people and into classrooms nationwide, educators increasingly find themselves under pressure to combat this new front of hate. Given the rise in school shootings, teachers -- like law enforcement officials and parents -- now face the difficult task of trying to identify which students risk being radicalized.

Many educators said they feel ill-equipped to recognize what students absorb from the web, much less to address it. In response, several organizations have started to try to provide some guidance, and new tools are emerging that help teachers spot signs of white nationalist ideology and at-risk students.

"What we heard from teachers, administrators and educators is that they were just not quite sure what to do," said Eric Ward, executive director of Western States Center, a nonprofit organization in Portland, Ore., that published a 47-page manual this year to advise teachers on how to confront extremism.

The number of Americans between the ages of 15 and 21 who saw extremist content online jumped by about 20%, to 70.2% from 58.3%, between 2013 and 2016, according to a study by James Hawdon, a sociology professor who runs the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention at Virginia Tech.

FBI statistics logged 273 hate crimes in K-12 schools in 2018, down from 340 the previous year but well above the 158 recorded in 2013.

The Western States kit offers advice on addressing specific situations such as finding a swastika carved in a library chair; reading a student's paper that was based solely on white supremacist websites; and discovering that students flashed a white power sign in a yearbook picture. It also includes a guide to common white supremacist symbols.

Educators wrestle on several fronts with how to counter white power ideology, especially since students of color feel strongly that such ideas should be rejected publicly. Some teachers turn to programs like the one from Western States Center or the Southern Poverty Law Center, which offers a curriculum guide called Teaching Tolerance.

The independent nature of school districts, however, means there is no standard approach, and there has never been a thorough study on the effectiveness of such methods, said Peter Simi, a sociology professor at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and an expert on extremist organizations. American University in Washington, D.C., plans to start such a study in the spring.

A Section on 11/24/2019

Print Headline: Extremists' views reach youths


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