are we safer?




In this lesson, students will examine the investigative tool known as a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR), which has become the primary data-gathering mechanism of the federal government since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Students will consider the definition and applicability of "suspicious behavior" through sample cases. They will then examine the "reasonable suspicion" standard the federal government is supposed to use in its surveillance. Finally, students will decide whether the use of SARs and similar tools has increased the security of the United States or threatens the liberties of its citizens. For primary source documents and other background materials for this lesson, please see Related Resources.


Subject Area:

Social Studies, Civics, Law, American History


Grade Level:

Grades 9-12



The student will:

  • Analyze the concept of suspicious activity in connection with sample Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) case studies
  • Apply the reasonable suspicion standard, established in the 1968 Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, to behaviors defined as potentially criminal
  • Evaluate, in a short essay format, if these security measures have led to a safer United States or if they have restricted individual liberties


Estimated Time Needed:

One 50-minute class period. For classrooms able to spend more time or that need additional background, please see the teaching strategies outlined in the Lesson Extensions.


Materials Needed:




  • Ask students to consider the following scenario:
    • You are driving home from school and you stop at an intersection. Off to your left, you see three men pull into the parking lot of a convenience store. All three are wearing dark jackets, though it is a warm day. One of them is carrying an empty garbage bag. You see them pause outside the storefront, look around them quickly, and then enter the store hurriedly. The light in front of you changes and the cars begin to move.
    • What do you think the men were doing?
    • What additional information would confirm or refute your initial assumptions?
    • What details in this scenario could reasonably be considered suspicious? Which ones could not? Explain.
    • How do contextual details (time, place, behavior, etc.) help you to define what is suspicious?
  • Tell students that law enforcement has always relied on citizen tips about suspicious behavior to detect and prevent criminal acts, but since the 9/11 attacks, the federal government has set up a more formal system for reporting and communicating about suspicious behavior.
  • Show the class the video Are We Safer? (length 21:25). Focus student viewing by asking them to listen for the terms "Suspicious Activity Report" and "fusion center."
  • After watching the film, have students work in pairs to complete the student handout "Suspicious or Not?" In Part 1 of the handout, students will generate their own conceptions of what suspicious behavior is. In Part 2, they will examine the reasonable suspicion standard the federal government is supposed to use in its surveillance. Students will decide whether the activities defined as potentially criminal in an actual suspicious incident report are reasonably suspicious, justify their views, and then evaluate whether or not the standard may prove problematic (i.e., Is it too vague?; Is it too broad?; Does it rely on characteristics of the suspect that may present legal issues -- for example, race or ethnicity?; Is there room for abuse?).
  • As time permits, compare and discuss student conclusions as a class.
  • For amplification and assessment, give students the handout "Suspicious Activity Report: A Tool or a Threat?" Students should choose a statement from the handout and compose a short essay that supports the statement with relevant examples.



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