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Schools excluding students and calling police for supporting Palestine

Schools excluding students and calling police for supporting Palestine

Categories: Latest News

Friday June 25 2021

In recent weeks, MEND’s Islamophobia Response Unit (IRU) has received 146 reports from students detailing schools taking action to shut down support of Palestine rather than engaging in a civil and respectful dialogue about the current situation in Occupied Palestine. Amongst the reports are accounts of students being verbally (and in some cases physically) reprimanded, and receiving detentions, suspensions, exclusions, or even experiencing police involvement for expressing support for the Palestinian cause. The forms of activism reported as most likely to be punished were the wearing of Palestinian flags, emblems, or the keffiyeh (30%) and expressing vocal support for Palestine (23%).

Cases include:

  • Students being told that displaying the Palestinian flag equates to supporting terrorism, with one teacher comparing it to the swastika.
  • Incidents where teachers have made statements including that it is Palestine’s fault that they are being bombed; that Palestine does not matter; and, even using Islamophobic language and slurs (such as P**i).
  • A 14year old boy was slapped by his deputy head teacher for holding a sign saying “PLM [Palestinian Lives Matter], FREE PALESTINE”. The incident left the student feeling unsafe to return to school following the half term break due to the school’s failure to investigate the incident despite CCTV footage.
  • A 15year old student was excluded from classes and sent to isolation for wearing a keffiyeh.
  • A Year 12 student was reprimanded for wearing a “Free Palestine” badge and putting up posters with QR codes that directed viewers to educational resources on Palestine.

Meanwhile, there have also been numerous wider reports of concerted efforts by schools to demonise Palestinian solidarity, including a headteacher stating that the Palestinian flag is a “message of support for antisemitism” and another report of a school banning students from distributing “free Palestine” stickers, with students caught doing this being labelled by the headteacher as “cowards and racists”.

This raises severe concerns about the systematic exclusion of Muslim students from legitimate expressions of democratic engagement and represents a striking example of structural and institutional forms of Islamophobia embedded within our education system.

Indeed, following attacks on the Al-Aqsa Mosque last month, it emerged that PREVENT teams have sent guidance to a number of schools across the country, renewing concerns that the PREVENT strategy is being used to shut down political opposition through securitising legitimate discourse. This is a hugely dangerous approach as it creates a chilling effect on Muslim students’ abilities to participate in democratic expression, thus producing severe consequences for democracy and for any attempts to nurture students into mature and active citizens. While a single article cannot provide space to fully discuss the problematic nature of PREVENT and its discriminatory impact upon Muslim students specifically, it is helpful to explore Rights Watch UK’s report Preventing Education? Human Rights and UK Counter-Terrorism Policy in Schoolsand MEND’s Evidence to the Independent Review of PREVENT.

Numerous studies have documented ways in which the Islamophobia that Muslims frequently face undermines their ability to engage in public life on an equal footing with their non-Muslim counterparts, with findings of the Social Mobility Commission, demonstrating that Islamophobia holds back young Muslims at every stage of their life. Therefore, schools should be actively pursuing their Public Sector Equality Duty to advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not. This includes through supporting their Muslim students in expressing their views by creating an environment where they feel safe and supported enough to do so. However, the evidence of the heavy-handed approach of many schools seems to directly contravene this duty, instead purposefully excluding Muslim students further.

 At the same time, the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, recently wrote to headteachers of all state secondary schools in the UK on the issue of discussing Palestine and Israel in a school setting, and made particular mention to cases where Jewish students/teachers had been made victim to anti-Semitic sentiment – something against which caution should be taken and which useful advice is found in MEND’s guide on facilitating discussions on Palestine here. However, Williamson made no mention of Islamophobia faced by Muslim students in relation to the issue of Palestine and failed to express any kind of concern for Muslim children who face such prejudice. In the context of current tensions, this failure to treat both groups with equal concern can only serve to encourage prejudicial treatment against Muslims and creates an environment where their legitimate democratic expression is uncritically labelled as racist.

While anti-Semitic language and behaviour must be confronted and should not be tolerated, the mere advocating for the human rights of Palestinians or criticising the actions of the Israeli Government cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic. The shutting down of these expressions of opinion sends a false and discriminatory message that these opinions are anti-Semitic and, therefore, these students themselves are somehow racist.

Neither Islamophobia nor anti-Semitism should ever be tolerated, and schools should be working to create respectful environments where critical democratic debates can occur in a healthy manner. However, the current approach of many schools serves only to fuel Islamophobia and marginalise Muslim and pro-Palestinian students’ voices and experiences. This approach excludes young people from participation and will have devastating consequences for the confidence and inclusion of these students in public life as they develop.

See MEND’s guidance for schools on how to create a respectful environment where all students can express their views, ask questions, and exchange ideas in a positive atmosphere here.

If you have been impacted by these issues and require further assistance, please contact MEND’s IRU at www.iru.mend.org.uk/

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