Almost two years ago – a long time in the history of the Prevent strategy – I spoke to a mother who confided in me that her son was so distraught by a Prevent referral made by his school that he had told her he no longer wished to live. This is her story, and a call to challenge Prevent as school begins. If this concerns you, please join us at our Webinar this Wednesday.
It is a conversation that has been forever etched into my mind. I relay this story with a heavy heart, even though, thankfully, the child sought private counseling and is doing well now. We relay cases like these, not to scare others, but so all people involved understand the human cost of Prevent.
The child in question was in secondary school at the time and was being bullied – a fear many of us have especially at the start of a new academic year.
With only a few friends at school and being a natural introvert born into an age where most games are online rather than outside, he played online games and so made virtual friends.
Lured in by an online “friend”, who gets away
One virtual “friend” was using terminology like jihadi, and was expressing hateful ideas. The child thought it would be funny to use this language as a way to seek attention in class one day, and he chose a username with the word jihadi in it.
He was told off in front of his peers by the teacher, which enabled his peers to then begin calling him “a terrorist”. It took one day until he found himself being interrogated during his lunch break by a member of staff.
His mother was contacted and asked to bring her son’s devices into the school. When the mother turned up to the school, she found her son in a room being questioned. She had not been present during this session.
When her son came out, he looked pale and his lips were dry – a sure sign, she knew, of clear distress. Later he was to relay to his mother that he had “flashbacks of being questioned in that chair” and how it was the “worst day of his life”.
Being an introvert, her son had felt utterly disrespected by the way in which his privacy had been completely denied by Prevent going through his personal devices.
The Prevent officer had come to the conclusion that this child was “a potential threat”, after only a very short period of time with him, without his parent or in fact any other adult present who may have been able to give more context to the situation.
Rather, it was decided, this child was a “potential terrorist” and he needed to go on a deradicalisation programme.
What was remarkable is that no effort whatsoever was made to trace the virtual “friend”, or the account of the individual who was assumed to be “grooming him”. Instead, “he” got away.
Almost alone against the state
As his mother spoke to me she held back tears. Every now and again, her voice cracked and she would apologise. I listened on the other end of the phone, feeling utterly helpless and, as a mother myself, feeling empathy with her.
The mother said she had felt harassed and coerced to put her child on Channel; she was bombarded by Prevent and its partner agencies to engage with them.
She did not feel that they understood her concerns nor her child’s concerns, and she could not understand how and why they would come to the conclusion that her child, who had been very much a victim of a malicious online account, could be treated in such a way.
In fact, in legal terms, her son was being treated worse than a perpetrator of a crime; he was not being given the due assumption of innocence before guilt particularly due to a child – and on top of this, he was being associated, not just with any crime, but with the crime of terrorism, which is one of the worst offenses and carries a stigma for a person’s entire life.
Seeing the deterioration of her son, his mother sought private counseling for her child. At this stage, she naturally did not feel comfortable using any public support services.
Summoning all her courage, she challenged the Prevent officer and the school. She demanded the basis of the referral and asked why her child was being treated like a suspect.
Prevent and the partnering agencies stopped harassing her and her son, but it was a very draining and traumatic experience for them both as well as their family.
Why challenging the Prevent strategy must continue
Although both mother and son are in a much better place now, this experience of authority is something they will both carry with them, as will wider family members, for their lifetimes.
This is not a story to instill fear. Rather, it is an account of what can happen at school when teachers and other staff are under pressure to implement a strategy that assumes guilt before innocence and is Islamophobic and racist at its core, allowing – and in fact, encouraging – multiple emotive biases of adults to cloud natural compassion as well as proper professional judgment and indeed simple common sense.
When you place a legal duty on teachers and other employees in the public services to make biased decisions about who will or will not go on to be “a future terrorist” – when there is no method of predicting future criminals except in dystopian sci-fi movies – things cannot but go wrong.
And yet still, in the UK, millions of public service staff are being trained to believe that they have “a responsibility to stop terrorism” using a strategy that upends long-held principles of justice, and when it is not their job to do this.
This is being done using a flawed theory that has proposed that certain indicators – mostly of religious belief, language and dress – are “signs” of “risk”, when they are not.
With most Prevent referrals coming from the education sector, our children are being placed at the receiving end of this dangerous experiment involving the devolution of security to people whose jobs are meant to be centred in trust and compassion.
We must question and challenge the new Prevent duty guidance as sharpened and worsened by William Shawcross. As parents and advocates of justice, we must ask what is being done to address the well-documented harms of Prevent. We must put these questions to schools, to Prevent, and to government so we can make schools a safe place for children again.
Please join us at our Webinar this Wednesday on Prevent in the new academic year.