The UK’s counterterrorism strategy is stifling children’s freedom in school classrooms, infringing young people’s right to privacy and causing Muslim pupils to self-censor out of fear of being reported to authorities, according to a new human rights report.
Prevent is “leaving a generation of young Britons fearful of exercising their rights to freedom of expression and belief,” said Yasmine Ahmed, the NGO’s director.
“It is also proving counter-productive, driving children to discuss issues related to terrorism, religion, and identity outside the classroom and online where simplistic narratives are promoted and go unchallenged.”
Prevent was introduced in British schools in July 2015.
Teachers have a legal duty to try and stop students from being lured into “terrorism”, and schools are expected to have in place policies that identify children who are at risk and “intervene as appropriate”.
But the programme has before been criticised for racially profiling young British Muslims.
“Our research has found that Muslim children across the United Kingdom are self-censoring for fear of being reported,” said Ahmed.
“We have uncovered a number of instances where children have been referred to Prevent for legitimately exercising their right to freedom of expression in situations where they pose no threat to society whatsoever.”
Critics say that the programme has seen some teachers misidentify cases where the child is not at risk, leading to an atmosphere of fear and nervousness.
“It is completely unacceptable that the government is collecting, retaining and potentially sharing information on children in the United Kingdom without their consent and with no apparent regulation and oversight, particularly in instances where these children are not even accused or suspected of engaging in unlawful activity,” Ahmed said.
“This is a clear violation of the right to privacy.”
During May and June, the NGO carried out 26 interviews with: parents and students; teachers and school governors; serving and retired members of the police; a member of parliament and local councillors; union members; academics and representatives of religious institutions
Case studies in the 59-page report include a nine-year-old boy, who was referred by his east-London school for wearing a T-shirt that read: “I want to be like Abu Bakr al-Siddique”, a figure in the Islamic tradition said to be one of the first converts to the religion.
Social services staff asked the child whether the T-shirt was in reference to the hardline Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) armed group, and questioned whether he thought Muslims or Christians go to hell after they die.
The child’s mother said that social services recorded a “caution” against her son, but it was not made clear to her what the caution related to.
In another case, two police officers visited 17-year-old Rahmaan Mohammadi, from north London, after his school referred him for expressing solidarity with people in the occupied Palestinian territories by wearing a scarf and badge, and by handing out leaflets about the humanitarian emergency in Gaza.
The officers said they were questioning Mohammadi “because of what you have done in school”, and asked him whether he was a Sunni or Shia Muslim.
“If you look at all those people that have gone to ISIS [ISIL], it’s because they have been withdrawn from society that they found these different societies on the Internet,” Mohammadi said.
“[Prevent] leads people underground or online, or because they cannot talk [about] stuff freely. [Instead] you’re looking stuff up on the internet, where most radicalisation takes place.”
In another case, a nursery teacher misheard when a boy, aged four, described what he had drawn and thought he said a “cooker-bomb”, not “cucumber”. Instead of consulting the child’s parents first, staff contacted his mother to ask for a signature on a formal referral record.
“To treat the best interests of the child as a primary consideration, no consideration appears to have been given to any investigation of child safety [such as inquiry with his parents at the relevant time] before moving straight to a referral under the Prevent strategy,” said Rights Watch.
Prevent has also ruffled teachers. In March, the largest teachers’ union called on the government to develop alternative counterterrorism strategies, saying that evidence shows “extremist groups” recruit on social media, as opposed to on school premises.
Kevin Courtney, the deputy secretary of the National Union of Teachers, told Rights Watch: “Prevent isn’t doing a good job at keeping children safe because it is not allowing an open discussion, which is crucial for development.”
‘Prevent risks alienating communities’
The £40m-a-year programme ($53m) was introduced by the Labour government after the 2005 London bombings and has been continued by successive administrations.
“Prevent began as a benign means of enabling those involved in counterterrorism to identify and approach those who had found themselves involved in terrorist activity and possibly regretted it,” Peter Carter, a barrister with Doughty Street Chambers specialising in terrorism and international human rights law, told Al Jazeera.
“It has now developed into a programme which is more extensive, more intrusive and more intimidating. By doing so, it risks alienating sections of our society who would wish to be law abiding. Attempts to suppress ideas will be counterproductive. Attempts to suppress the discussion of ideas which fall short of encouraging or inciting violence are inconsistent with the rule of law.
“There is a risk that we revert to a system which seeks out and suppresses heresy. Protecting individuals and society itself from violence is an important part of law enforcement; suppressing ideas which are subversive but not inciting violence is not.”
Carter acknowledged that the UK has a “terrorism problem”.
“It includes Islamic terrorism and right-wing racist terrorism. The latter tends to target specific communities and creates general fear in those communities with the risk that confidence in the law is undermined. Sensitive acquisition of intelligence and intelligent use of it is desirable.”
Children need to be protected from insidiously violent ideas and images, he said.
“That can best be done in safe domestic or educational [including religious education] establishments in which the valid intellectual inquiry can be encouraged and violent propaganda can be exposed and debunked.”
Regarding the infringement of privacy, Carter dismissed the argument that if someone has nothing to hide, he should not be afraid.
NEW OFSTED REPORT
The analysis from Rights Watch coincided with the release of a report by Ofsted, the UK’s education watchdog, that called for better training of staff under the Prevent programme.
In one case study highlighted by Oftsed, a college student was able to “circumvent computer firewalls and access an ISIS [ISIL] video showing a person being beheaded” without intervention by staff or fellow students. The college reported the incident under Prevent but “the learner [student] showed no remorse about what she had done,” Ofsted said.
“The learner received no support or counselling from the college and was not reprimanded in any way.”
“Unless citizens are diligent and fearful about unnecessary infringements on free speech, society is at risk … Authority generally likes to reduce individual rights. We must all be vigilant to avoid that,” he said.
In a government-issued guide last updated in July 2015, “extremism” in the Prevent strategy is defined as, “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.
Rachel Robinson, policy officer at the human rights group Liberty, told Al Jazeera: “If we want to effectively challenge violent extremism, we should be encouraging inclusion and open debate – safe in the knowledge that our values of tolerance and fairness are stronger than those of hatred and violence.
“The Prevent programme has targeted innocent children for everything from asking questions and developing political awareness to drawing pictures and chatting to school friends,” Robinson said.
“By forcing teachers to police childhood, Prevent has damaged the once trusting relationships that play a crucial part in safeguarding. By alienating young people, it increases the risk of radicalisation.”
Follow Anealla Safdar on Twitter: @anealla