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War on Gaza: UK primary school threatened Prevent referrals over Palestine symbols

Parents of children at London school who dressed in Palestinian colours or wore badges or stickers for 'Children in Need' Day were told they could be 'deemed offensive'
Parents held a protest against Barclay Primary School in Leyton after it said it sent a letter threatening to refer their children to Prevent to eight families (Supplied)

A primary school in London wrote a warning to the parents of children who wore flags and stickers in support of Palestine, during a non-uniform day to raise money for the BBC's Children in Need appeal, that they risked being referred to the government's Prevent counter-terrorism programme.

In the letter sent to parents last month, Barclay Primary School in Leyton, east London, said that dressing in the colours of the Palestinian flag or wearing "badges, jewellery and stickers" supportive of Palestine were "overt demonstrations of political beliefs" that could be "deemed offensive".

Middle East Eye understands that the letter was sent to the families of a number of children who wore Palestinian symbols, including an eight-year-old child who wore a Palestinian flag on the side of their jacket.

The letter also warns parents about comments posted on social media and on WhatsApp groups.

"These should not be brought into school or acted out in parent whatsapp groups that can easily be miscontrued as offensive or divisive and in some cases a form of extremism," the letter said.

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"Inappropriate comments made at school or demonstrated at school, including extremist or divisive comments, can and will lead to formal meetings with the school, referrals to the PREVENT Team or the Hate Crime Team in Waltham Forest."

Lion Academy Trust, which runs Barclay Primary School, did not respond to MEE's request for comment. But in a statement published on Wednesday, it said the letter had been "misappropriated" and "taken out of context".

"The letter was specific to alleged misconduct by the parties to whom it was sent. Further, we are bound by our legal duty under Prevent and whilst we have never reported anyone to Prevent at the school, and would not wish to do so, we are seeking to be transparent by making individuals aware of the school’s legal obligations," the statement read. "We believe we are acting firmly on the basis of the range of evidence at hand and to suggest otherwise is a distortion of the facts."

The trust said it had decided to close the school a day early, on Wednesday, for the school Christmas holiday because of "escalating threats against staff and the school".

'If they show any Palestinian support, they get in trouble... kids are reported to Prevent or sent home or told to change'

School staff member

Parents and pro-Palestine activists gathered outside the school in protest on Thursday. Footage on social media showed a few dozen people carrying placards and flags, with a Palestinian flag flying from a lampost outside the school.

One member of staff, speaking on condition of anonymity, told MEE that senior management had created a "culture of fear" around Palestine and banned teachers from answering questions on the issue. 

"If they show any Palestinian support, they get in trouble; for example, kids are reported to Prevent or sent home or told to change," the staff member told MEE.

"They stopped showing Newsround so kids don't see what is going on in Palestine. Before, kids lined up in the playground when arriving at school and leaving. Now, they don't because they don't want kids to see parents supporting Palestine.

"Their school uniform policy used to include 'allow cultural symbols' but they got rid of it when the conflict started."

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In response to the letter sent by the school, dozens of parents sent a formal complaint letter, describing threats to report children to Prevent as an attack on their freedom of speech and inconsistent with previous stances the school had taken on global conflicts.

"As parents and carers, we have found it particularly difficult to read your letter of 17 November comparably with your letter of 4 March 2022 in relation to the Russian invasion of Ukraine," noted the parents' complaint. 

"Instead of wishing for a peaceful resolution in Ukraine 'and all the other conflicts in the world' as you seemingly did in March 2022, you purport to deprive children of their rights to freedom of expression, going so far as to imply that wearing red and green could justify an escalation to the Hate Crime Team.

"Whereas in relation to Ukraine, you noted a 'palpable sense of concern and anxiety amongst the pupils', these pupils' agency is seemingly removed in the context of Palestine. Instead, you are more concerned that children displaying support for Palestine are 'being used as political pawns'." 

Children at 'risk' of Prevent referrals

The case comes as Cage International, a human rights advocacy group, released a report on Thursday highlighting allegations of censorship of Palestine in schools and workplaces.

Muhammad Mussa, a spokesperson for Cage, told MEE it had dealt with over 200 cases involving school children, university students, employees and protesters who have faced harassment and repression for supporting Palestine.

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"Cage International condemns Barclays Primary School's threat to refer students expressing support for Palestine to the Islamophobic Prevent programme," Mussa told MEE. 

"This unjust action exemplifies the wider suppression of voices advocating justice for the people of Palestine. School authorities should protect the student's right to free speech, not silence genuine and legitimate expressions of solidarity and justice."

Last month, Amnesty International published a report titled "This is the Thought Police" and warned that UK schoolchildren were "at risk" of being referred to Prevent over their support for Palestine. 

Amnesty highlighted how more than a third of referrals to Prevent in the latest official figures were children under 15, with nearly half of them from Muslim or Asian backgrounds.

"Prevent is fundamentally incompatible with the UK's human rights obligations," said Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK's chief executive.

"We are especially concerned about the growing number of young people, particularly minoritised, Muslim and neurodiverse people who are being referred to Prevent."

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