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2015 in review: Using schools to address extremism

  • 11 January 2016

First published 13 October 2015

As the government prepares to address the involvement of schoolchildren in violent extremism, a controversial program in the UK shows a dangerous path that Australia must avoid.

In September Sydney's Daily Telegraph ran the headline 'Schoolyard Terror Blitz', reporting that 'schoolteachers will be given access to radicalisation information awareness kits explaining how to identify students at risk and what they should do to intervene as concerns grow about the rise of teen terrorists'.

The government's actual plans are not clear. In May 2015 the then federal education minister Chris Pyne appeared to disavow any idea of having teachers spot potential terrorists, and the language of justice minister Michael Keenan's media releases is more restrained than what his office appeared to announce through the Telegraph.

Nonetheless, the prospect of encouraging teachers to try to spot early warning signs of terrorism is extremely worrying.

Events like the Numan Haider incident, and the fact that some Australian schoolchildren (such as Abdullah Elmir and Jake Bilardi) have joined the 'Islamic State', likely prompted the concern about teenage involvement in terrorism. The recent murder of a civilian police member by a 15-year-old boy in an apparent terror incident may spur increased efforts to involve schools in Countering Violent Extremism (CVE).

CVE is a broad term that refers to non-coercive measures aimed at reducing the chances of people becoming involved in terrorism. CVE is an important element of counterterrorism, and is rightfully part of Australia's response to the heightened threat resulting from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

However, CVE remains an experimental area and can risk causing harm, particularly if programs are broadly-targeted, treating whole sections of the population as potential terrorists.

The UK shows the dangerous direction Australia could head in. From mid-2015, UK schoolteachers have had a legal obligation to spot children considered vulnerable to radicalisation. The UK government has repeatedly stated that its measures are not intended to stifle debate on controversial topics or create an atmosphere of fear, but how it works in practice is a different story.

There have been reports of children being referred to an early-intervention program called Channel for simply using terms like 'alhamdulillah' and 'allahu akbar', of a 12-year child being referred to police for expressing the view that the government hates Muslims, of a 14-year old boy being questioned by child safety officers for using the phrase 'eco-terrorism' in a discussion on environmental activism, and of a 15-year-old boy being questioned by