Schoolchildren in the UK who express support for Palestine face being questioned by police and referred into a counter-radicalisation programme for youngsters deemed at risk of being drawn into terrorism under controversial new laws requiring teachers to monitor students for extremism.One schoolboy said he was accused of holding “radical” and “terrorist-like” views by a police officer who questioned him for taking leaflets into school promoting a boycott of Israel during last year’s war in Gaza.
The case reflects concerns raised by teachers and students and also in Muslim communities about the expansion of the government’s divisive Prevent counter-extremism strategy into schools, with critics complaining that teachers are being expected to act as the “eyes and ears of the state”.
Since the beginning of July, teachers have had a statutory duty to monitor and report children who they believe may be susceptible to radicalisation, although Prevent engagement officers, who are usually also police officers, have long been active in schools in areas with significant Muslim populations.
The boy, who was then 15 and attending school in a southern English town, said he was also told that “Free Palestine” badges and wristbands that he wore were “extremist” and that he should not discuss Palestine with his friends. The boy and the school he attended are not being identified to protect his privacy.
“He asked me what I thought of the leaflet,” the boy said, describing how a police officer told him he had been brought into the school to “deal with this sort of extremism”.
“I explained to him my views about freedom and justice and that I supported Palestine. I said I thought Israel should have tough sanctions put upon it and he said these could be radical beliefs. He said these are terrorist-like beliefs that you have. He explicitly said you cannot speak about this conflict at school with your friends, even at lunchtime.”
The leaflet, produced by Friends of al-Aqsa, a UK-based organisation campaigning for Palestinian rights, promotes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel and concludes with a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu comparing the human rights situation in Palestine to apartheid-era South Africa.
The boy said he had subsequently had numerous run-ins with teachers and with the police officer, who had an office in the school. “I asked my form tutor about the Prevent strategy and whether he would act as an informant if I said anything, and he basically said, ‘I am uncomfortable with that but that is what I have to do’.”
On another occasion, a dinner lady reported him to teachers for enquiring whether any food in the school canteen was of Israeli origin or produced by companies with links to Israel.
When he and other students sought to raise money to send to Gaza during last year’s Israeli assault on the enclave, the school’s headteacher told them to change the name of the fundraising effort from “Palestine Appeal” to “Charity Appeal” and made them replace an image of Palestinian children on a poster with a picture of some olives.
The headteacher then told them to remove a quotation from an Islamic scholar from the poster, the boy said. But he said a quotation from a Christian text would be acceptable, something which the boy said he considered “deeply Islamophobic”.
A teacher also spoke to his 14-year-old younger brother, who attended the same school. “He went to my brother and showed him an article about how schools can report to the intelligence agencies. And he said, ‘Your brother has radical ideas and radical beliefs. You advise your brother to stop or we will report him to the intelligence agencies’.”
Other examples suggesting that an interest in Palestine or Palestine-related activism is something that teachers and public officials are being encouraged to look out for and report as part of their Prevent duties have also been identified.
A police leaflet produced for public sector workers to help them make judgments about referrals to Channel, a support programme for young people considered to be vulnerable to recruitment by violent extremists, includes a case study in which a student’s discussion of “Palestine and other international conflicts” is deemed salient information.
A report on government counter-extremism policy published earlier this year by Claystone, a social cohesion think tank, also cited the case of a teenager identified as requiring potential de-radicalisation for attending a peaceful protest against an Israeli diplomat.
And in 2014, Tell MAMA, which records anti-Muslim hate crime, received a report of a schoolboy who was reported to his headteacher for writing an essay describing his concern and anger about Israel’s attack on Gaza earlier that year, according to the website Religious Reader.
“We’ve heard of the police going into schools to talk about Prevent to teachers and saying things like, ‘If a kid thinks the West is at war with Islam it might be a cause for concern.’ Or if a child goes on a demonstration against the bombing of Gaza, ‘Keep an eye on him,’” said Alex Kenny of the National Union of Teachers.
Prevent has long been a source of resentment among many British Muslims and civil liberties campaigners, with critics complaining that it sows mistrust of Muslims and subjects them to discriminatory levels of surveillance and harassment.
In an open letter earlier this month, hundreds of academics warned that the extension of Prevent into schools and universities would have a “chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent” and said it had “failed the very communities it seeks to protect”.
‘Paranoia in the extreme’
Addressing those concerns on Monday in a speech at a school in Birmingham outlining a five-year plan to tackle extremism, David Cameron, the British prime minister, suggested that critics of counter-terrorism policies were being paranoid.
“The world is not conspiring against Islam; the security services aren’t behind terrorist attacks; our new Prevent duty for schools is not about criminalising or spying on Muslim children. This is paranoia in the extreme,” said Cameron.
But Ibtihal Bsis, a barrister currently researching the impact of Prevent on Muslim communities, said that distrust of the strategy and its entrenchment in schools was motivated by genuine grievances.
“Children are now being told by their parents not to share any political views whatsoever,” said Bsis. “Some children are being asked questions like ‘What do you think of ISIS?’ to entrap them, so that is very concerning.”
Ismail Patel, chairman of Friends of al-Aqsa, dismissed allegations that the organisation’s leaflets were extremist and accused the government of “veering towards totalitarianism”.
“People are scared to talk about Palestine. People are scared to talk about BDS. A lot of mosques now will not put posters up. There is fear in the community so there is self-censorship and self policing,” said Patel.
“It is stifling political debate that really feeds the process of radicalisation because they are not allowing individuals to express their grievances through the right channels.”
Bill Bolloten, an educational consultant involved in #EducationNotSurveillance, an informal campaign network, said there was widespread nervousness and anxiety among school leaders about the implementation of Prevent in classrooms, and said that many teachers were still in the dark about what was expected of them.
“It is co-opting a range of non-police, non-security professionals to be the eyes and ears of the state, and it is undermining trust,” said Bolloten.
“Quite normal teenage traits and behaviours will be viewed in an entirely different way. There is huge potential in this to make mistakes and those mistakes can have serious and possibly lifelong consequences for the children involved.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “School staff should use their professional judgement in identifying children who might be at risk of radicalisation and act proportionately. Good schools already do this and there is guidance available for schools to use.
“This doesn’t and shouldn’t stop schools from discussing controversial issues – and will give pupils a safe space to develop the knowledge to challenge extremist beliefs and ideologies.”
The boy, who is now 16, left school last month and intends to continue his studies at a further education college. Since then he said he had been visited at home by a Prevent officer and a case worker who identified himself as working for Channel, the programme for young people deemed to be vulnerable to radicalisation.
During the visit, the boy said the police officer had raised his voice in an aggressive manner when he and his mother spoke to each other in Farsi, his mother’s first language, and told him, ‘Stop trying to be clever with me’.
He said he had also been questioned about his views about ISIS, and the war in Syria even though he is a Shia Muslim, something which he believes most of those who questioned him did not fully understand.
“The Channel officer was more understanding. He explained that they were happy that I was not ‘the ISIS type’. He said if I had any concerns or queries, maybe about friends, that I could call him. And he said, ‘From now on nothing further is going to happen unless you do something similar’. I’m not sure what he meant by that.”
A version of this story was originally published by Al Jazeera on 22 July, 2015.