March 9, 2017
Canterbury Boys High School in southwest Sydney was identified as a prime candidate for the introduction of a state government-funded program to counter violent extremism, after several students were identified as being at high risk of radicalisation.
The school — whose 2013 dux, Samir Atwani, fled to Syria to join Islamic State shortly after graduating — was recently identified by the Department of Education alongside Punchbowl Boys High School as being in need of specialist support to ensure that further students did not succumb to extremist behaviour, The Australian has learned.
While Punchbowl resisted the department’s anti-extremism program, which ultimately cost its principal and a deputy their jobs, Canterbury Boys High is understood to have implemented the program last year.
The Education Department yesterday declined to identify any schools participating in the program, citing privacy and operational reasons. However, several parents of Canterbury students have confirmed that they had recently received letters from the school about the program and an upcoming information session.
Punchbowl Boys High principal Chris Griffiths and deputy Joumana Dennaoui were removed from their roles last Thursday amid a raft of claims, ranging from the mistreatment of female teachers to concerns that staff had been assaulted and threatened by students claiming to be terrorist sympathisers.
The school’s once strong relationship with local police had also collapsed.
Education Department media director Mark Davis initially said the pair’s removal was not in any way linked to concerns over student radicalisation, social cohesion or security.
However, when he was quizzed on Sydney radio station 2GB on Monday, departmental secretary Mark Scott confirmed that a recent departmental appraisal that led to Mr Griffiths and Ms Dennaoui being stood down had been sparked by the school’s reluctance to implement the School Communities Working Together program — a multi-million-dollar initiative aimed at countering violent extremism in schools.
The Education Department has since declined numerous requests for information about the program and participating schools. Asked this week about the involvement of Canterbury Boys High School, another departmental media adviser said School Communities Working Together was not a “deradicalisation program” but rather a “proactive program designed to support schools”.
A statement by former premier Mike Baird on November 2, 2015, said the package would bolster training and support to help teachers identify students at risk of extremist and anti-social behaviour.
As part of the initiative, $15 million was dedicated to establishing five support teams within the Education Department to be sent to “identified schools” to devise strategies based on particular needs, deal with specific challenges around violent extremism and respond to crisis events. All teams have a senior psychological adviser and specialist student support worker. The package included an expanded incident-reporting system to ensure all schools were reporting incidents of violent extremism, as well as new resources for school administrators, teachers and parents to help identify and manage extremist behaviours by students, including within student prayer groups.
Student prayer groups came under scrutiny about two years ago after allegations that radical Islam was being preached by a student at Epping Boys High School. A statewide audit of prayer groups followed, which Punchbowl is understood to have failed. The Department of Education has previously confirmed it had received complaints from Punchbowl Boys High staff, but would not discuss their nature.
The principal of Canterbury Boys High School, Belinda Giudice, did not respond to requests for comment.