Anyone concerned about rapidly disappearing civil rights would have been alarmed and disgusted on reading an article headed “Teachers urged to report concerns on radicalised students” in the Sunday Age on 12 October.
In an initiative that can only feed into the current climate of Islamophobic hysteria, the Victorian Liberal government has set up a “strike team” of Education Department officers to “inform police about ‘unusual behaviour’ in schools – including signs that students may be susceptible of being indoctrinated into radical terror groups”. According to Victoria Police community engagement officer Ron Gardner, “What we’re looking at is radicalisation in all of its extremes, be it political, be it social, be it whatever.”
In other words, teachers are being asked to become intelligence gatherers for the state, and schools to act as a de facto security agency. As if there is not already a disturbing amount of surveillance, data retention and information gathering by authorities under the guise of the “war on terror”! Now teachers are expected to act as spies and dob in students who they suspect may be “radicalised”, or even possibly “susceptible” to radical ideas.
Following the police killing of teenager Abdul Numan Haider in September, school principals were summoned to a briefing to hear police advice on how to read signs about the early stages of “radicalism”, such as sudden changes in social behaviour, and told to report any concerns to a department officer, who will pass the information on to police. Young people may display “unusual behaviour” for all sorts of reasons; but if they happen to be Muslim, the assumption is that they are on the road to becoming terrorists.
And while Muslims are the current target, Gardner’s comment “be it whatever” makes it clear that the brief is very broad and could be used against anyone who opposes any aspect of the society we live in. In this it mirrors the draconian extension of the “anti-terror” laws currently before the federal parliament, which give security agencies a free hand to spy on and persecute anyone whose ideas – let alone actions – are deemed to be “radical”.
The Australian Education Union (AEU) has a pretty good record of supporting socially progressive causes, such as rights for asylum seekers, Indigenous rights and marriage equality. So it was both shocking and disappointing to read that the Victorian AEU is “broadly supportive of the changes”. State president Meredith Peace is quoted as saying that they “made sense”, and calling for “adequate resources to ensure department staff could carry out their new roles”.
Such a response flatly contradicts the traditions of a union that usually champions inclusiveness and egalitarianism and upholds civil liberties. It endorses a suspicious eye being cast on (and potential harassment of) Muslim students and accepts that it is part of the role of schools and teachers to act as an arm of state security.
AEU members in Victoria should be demanding that the union publicly oppose this initiative. Members should refuse to cooperate with it. Instead, we should be standing in solidarity with Muslim students and campaigning against Islamophobia.