In light of the Manchester terror attacks, how should schools and teachers respond when there has been a terrorist attack in UK or elsewhere? Students will be asking questions, talking among themselves, talking with families. Schools cannot ignore events, however controversial and disturbing it is to raise them. Here’s our top 6 tips:
- The first thing is groundwork. Schools need to feel prepared. It is useful if they have already had discussion among staff using real or imagined case studies of violence (Far Right, Islamist, animal rights, lone wolves). It is important that there is school unity, and support for teachers who want to discuss issues in the classroom or in form time. Some schools will suspend their curriculum to talk across the school about a current event, or will develop a specific assembly.
- Schools can find ways to embed events in existing learning. It sounds cynical to say you can turn an outrage into a ‘teachable moment’, but the question is whether or how it can fit into existing strands of learning. Discussion in PSHE can revolve round what turns people to violence. Is violence ever acceptable? What are other ways to create change? This can link to work on fundamental British values and mechanisms for democratic change.
- Children will experience a sense of fear, but also powerlessness. What can young people do? If there were a natural disaster such as an earthquake, they can raise money. With a human-inspired catastrophe, there are still victims, but these may be wider and more indirect than those targeted. After an extreme Islamist terrorism attack, there can be an increase in Islamophobia or general racism. Children can be warned that they may hear racist/Islamophobic/negative remarks and can be encouraged to dispute them if appropriate or safe to do so. It is important children know who they can talk to in a safe space. Do you have policies in place? Are your staff confident talking about these issues? It’s important that solutions remain part of a school’s overall programme of acting against hate and violence.
- Although the general principle is discussion and encouraging questions from students, there has to be care with replaying an event and causing undue shock. A recent case was of a teaching assistant who criticised her primary school showing graphic scenes of 9/11, with bodies falling from the building. She was dismissed, but won her case for unfair dismissal. Such videos have the obvious capacity to upset and frighten children, implying that the same could happen here. Teachers should try to reassure children that such attacks are isolated, but teachers cannot promise to keep children safe.
- Linked to this is media analysis and social media imagery – looking at what the media are seizing on (for example when they go straight to the perpetrator being a ‘Muslim convert’ instead of narrating the real complexity of their lives). After the Westminster attack, some papers showed a highly cropped picture, which seemed to highlight a Muslim girl just walking past, on her phone. Pan out and you see many other people in the frame who were passing by, with everyone unable to help, and with medics already surrounding the body.
- What should I do if I am worried about a child who seems vulnerable? There is a scale of action, from informal conversation through to referral to authorities. Firstly, it is best to try to open up dialogue, not being judgmental but trying to find out what is behind the worrying behaviour. Young people often want to explore issues, for example talking about politics or religion – this is a positive thing. Former extremists often tell us that parents should try to keep the lines of talking open, try to listen, and tackle the tricky questions together. The idea is to help young people learn and grow, while building resilience to negative ideas and arguments. Talk to your child’s teachers, youth workers, community organisations and other parents – there are always people to get advice and support from.
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