An 11-year-old schoolboy who was struggling with his homework was referred to the Prevent counter-radicalisation programme after a fellow pupil reported him saying during a fire drill that he wished his school would burn down.
The boy is deemed to be vulnerable and is on the school’s special educational needs register, owing to suffering from anxiety after witnessing domestic violence in the family home at the age of four and having to move to a safe house for a year with his mother and sibling. He is Muslim and of Asian heritage.
The boy’s mother, herself a teacher at a different school in the area in the north of England, condemned the decision to refer him. She told the Guardian: “Being a brown, Muslim, Asian boy does not make you a terrorist.”
The mother said her son was suffering due to the childhood trauma he had experienced. She said the comment made by her son, while unacceptable, was an isolated one and she had discussed with him alternative ways to relieve the stress he was experiencing at school.
There was no evidence, in documents about an investigation into the matter by the school, that the boy was in contact with or supported any extremist groups that could put him at risk of radicalisation, nor of a pattern of behaviour that could cause concern at school and trigger such a referral.
“Prevent guidance place clear emphasis on appropriateness and proportionality,” she said.
Although the Prevent officer decided swiftly not to take the complaint further, the boy’s details were automatically added to the counter-terror policing database, where they are routinely held for six years.
The mother made a complaint to her son’s school about the fact she was not informed that the boy’s teachers had interviewed him about the claim he had spoken about his wish for his school to burn down, a comment reported to staff by another pupil whose younger sibling reportedly heard the boy make the remark.
An investigation by the school into the mother’s complaint recommended that an apology be made over the failure to inform her about the Prevent referral.
It is understood the school made the referral after consulting a local police officer, who advised it to make the referral.
The Prevent officer who received the complaint very speedily closed the case and said the matter would not be investigated further.
“I was told by the Prevent officer that the matter would not be taken any further as it looked like the matter related to ‘an 11-year-old boy struggling with school’, the mother said. “My son had become so unhappy and stressed about the demands placed on him relating to homework.”
However, she said she had to fight to get her son’s name removed from the counter-terrorism policing database, which he had been added to even though he was just 11, had no criminal record, and the Prevent referral had been swiftly closed.
“I’ve achieved a partial victory because the police have agreed to remove his name from their database but I am seeking further information from his files which are held by the Home Office,” she said.
Dr Layla Aitlhadj, director at Prevent Watch and co-chair of the People’s Review of Prevent said: “It is extremely worrying that the thousands of children who are referred each year to Prevent who have in no way been suspected of a crime are essentially being criminalised through having their data retained on police databases alongside convicted criminals.
“It begs the question, just how many innocent children have a digital fingerprint across police databases as a result of Prevent and how might this impact their future.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Prevent is a safeguarding programme helping people to turn away from radicalisation. Prevent referral data is only held temporarily by the police, and parents or carers can request for it to be deleted sooner, where appropriate.
“All data is kept completely confidential, other than where a serious security risk emerges. Information and guidance on the use of, and access to, the central Prevent referral database is owned by the police and not by the Home Office.”