Associate Professor of Practice Amra Sabic-El-Rayess has identified a venue to slow the manifestation of domestic radicalization and extremism that contributed to the Jan. 6 insurrection on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol – the classroom.

“Education has traditionally not been viewed as a tool to address the circumstances that lead to extremism,” says Sabic-El-Rayess. “It has instead falled to political scientists or security experts. I have been a lonely voice saying education is where interventions need to take place before another January 6 or the next mass extremist movement. There is no better way to intervene than through educators with the ability to build a protective, transformational shift in our society and globally.”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security concurs. And in September, it awarded Sabic-El-Rayess a Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention grant to support innovative professional development programs that help educators act proactively to deter “the radicalization of students in U.S. classrooms.”

Amra Sabic-El-Rayess

Amra Sabic-El-Rayess, Associate Professor of Practice. (Photo: TC Archives)

Sabic-El-Rayess developed the initial pilot during the 2021 academic year in a TC course on social and educational transformations she created to engage students in action and project-based learning. Her other courses have similarly produced initiatives that inspire social cohesion globally.

“There is no training in educational spaces to empower teachers with skill sets to build the kind of moral resilience required to immunize students from radicalization,” Sabic-El-Rayess said. “We wanted to give teachers tools to build collective empathy, social connectedness and resilience to hate narratives before it is too late.”

The TC cohort launched the project with a sample size of teachers in 25 states. Sabic-El-Rayess’ research on educational displacement as a trigger to radicalization served as the conceptual foundation for the project’s development.

“We did the entire pilot with a budget of $2,000 by incorporating it into classroom work,” said Sabic-El-Rayess. But, it was after the class was over and after the students saw the impact our pilot had among educators that they kept asking to continue to work with me on preventing extremism. We ultimately sought external funding to substantially expand and build the kind of programming that effectuates positive change. The support of the federal government validates our scholarship and our work.”

The funding paves the way for Sabic-El-Rayess and the students - including Tina Keswani, Vik Joshi, Lauren Gonzales and Toomi Al-Dhahi - to devote two years to perfecting a training model that applies a holistic approach to the early identification and recalibration of extremist behavior. An acknowledgement of the implicit bias educators bring to classrooms is the starting point.

“Shifting the mindset of teachers can prevent the radicalization of students,” says Sabic-El-Rayess.

By building on prior work, the team will develop “Reimagine Resilience” – the self-guided, 30-hour professional development to provide educators with social-emotional strategies, learning practices and technologies to pre-emptively curtail extremist speech, language and behavior. Educators completing the course will receive certified professional development credits from Teachers College.

The TC funding was one of 37 grants totaling $20 million allocated through the DHS Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Grant Program. Distributed to local and state governments, non-profits and educational institutions, the funds are directed toward addressing domestic extremism at grassroot levels.

For Sabic-El-Rayess, the DHS grant further acknowledges a personal and professional commitment to justice, tolerance and understanding shaped by her life-defining experience as a survivor of the Bosnian genocide.

“There is a misconception that radicalization occurs online,” said Sabic-El-Rayess. “But displacement begins when a parent or a student is made to feel marginalized or unheard. For young people that can be a trigger to explore alternatives and seek belonging and recognition outside school. It is among those alternatives that extremist and radicalizing ideas reside.”