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Social Science Matters: How should we discuss terrorism in our schools?

As schools in the U.S., students have to enter through security gates; schools in Belgium were forced to remain closed for several days after the attacks there; and even in the Netherlands various bomb scares have led to children having to stay at home. And yet fear of terrorism remains a difficult subject at our schools. What should you discuss, and what not? Three scientists from our Faculty give their views, each from the point of view of their own academic discipline.

Radicalisation is not something schools can solve on their own

Thijs-Jan van Schie - anthropologist and secondary school teacher

As a teacher, I often find myself discussing the news with my students. On the morning after the U.S. presidential elections the students were down in the dumps: “Does this mean World War III is on the way?” Usually it’s them that raise the subject of the news, sometimes me. I help them put it all in context, give them background information, tone down the drama, and ask them what they feel and what they think.

Schools are interesting meeting places. Places where students broaden their outlook. In everybody’s search for individuality, a multiplicity of ideas can also sometimes lead to confusion. The ideas at home may not necessarily correspond to the ideas at school, or those of their friends. In this context Iliass El Hadioui (in Dutch) refers to a pedagogical triangle: the triangle of home culture, school culture, and peer group culture. In young people’s process of emergence, a continuous quest for and confrontation with the unknown, both parents and teachers play an important guiding role.

We can make allowances for the odd youthful quirk or indiscretion, but young people do need firm boundaries, and they need to be offered help if they threaten to go off the rails. Radicalisation is not something schools can solve on their own. That would be passing the buck too easily. But, to stick with El Hadioui’s terminology, a strong school culture – in which freedom, responsibility, and connectedness are highly valued – can definitely help young people to develop positively into autonomous and socially engaged adults. And in that way a strong school culture can contribute to a better society.

Enhancing sense of control

Evin Aktar - psychologist

Acts of terror directly target our children’s and our own feelings of safety. Not only are we scared of being victims of a future terror attack, but also it feels like it is the type of threat that we have little or no power to predict or control. As a researcher studying fear and anxiety in children and parents, I think enhancing our sense of control is an effective strategy that kills two birds with one stone by helping us to handle both children’s and our own fears of terrorism.

Despite our perception that we have no control, in fact we do have some power to minimise the possibility of a future terrorist attack. Governments are taking precautions and safety measures, and many professionals in a variety of institutions, including police and military forces, are working to ensure our security as citizens. Getting in touch with these institutions and professionals, and informing ourselves and our children about what has been done, and how we can contribute – all this will enhance our sense of control.

Meeting these professionals in person, especially, will help children to get a more concrete picture of the actual measures taken and people involved. Read Evin Aktar on Leiden Psychology Blog: How to deal with the threat of terrorism in children?

Students as suspects?

Francesco Ragazzi – political scientist

European governments emphasise the need to prevent "radicalisation". They have broadened the scope of counterterrorism, by treating it as a problem that needs to be tackled by society as a whole— schools explicitly included. Two main reasons have motivated this shift. The first concerns the capacity to detect radicalisation. A second motivation is that societal actors can, according to the Revised EU Strategy for Combating Radicalisation and Recruitment to Terrorism 2014, be instrumental in “combating inequalities and discrimination where they exist, promoting inter-cultural dialogue, strengthening education to enable opportunities and critical thinking, and promoting tolerance and mutual respect, exchanging viewpoints and communicating to civil society the success in these areas”. In other words, these issues are perceived as instrumental in preventing radicalisation.

There have been numerous cases where misunderstandings have led to a “false” alarm, and worse still, to traumatised children who were incorrectly linked to extremism or terrorism. On 7 December 2015, a 10-year-old Muslim boy at a primary school in Lancashire (UK) was asked about his house. He said he lived in a “terraced house”. Unfortunately, the teacher heard “terrorist house”. In line with the UK’s counterterrorism law of 2015, the teacher contacted the police, who visited the boy’s house the following day and interrogated him and his family on grounds of terrorism. The boy and the family were left traumatised by the incident. Across Europe, counter-radicalisation policies have unintended effects. In France and the UK, a substantial proportion of cases concern (very) young children. And what is perhaps even more problematic, it was their teachers who reported them.

Counter-radicalisation in schools, therefore, raises fundamental questions about the ethical and political limits of counterterrorism and the extent to which western democracies are willing to let the security logic of suspicion permeate an increasing number of areas of everyday life. More specifically, however, it poses the question of a potential contradiction of counter-radicalisation policies. By instrumentalising trust relations between societal actors, they may end up undermining the very social cohesion they intend to foster.

Social Science Matters – a soapbox for social scientists

Social Science Matters is an online variant on London’s famous Speakers’ Corner – a platform for the researchers in the various disciplines in the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences to react to the news. This soapbox gives the social scientists of the faculty the opportunity to voice their opinions on current affairs from the point of view of their own areas of expertise.

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