Students at my school, King Edward’s Camp Hill School For Girls, Birmingham, were recently intimidated for protesting at the conditions under which a visit by the Israeli deputy ambassador took place.
Students who spoke against the visit, and against the process itself, were pulled out of lessons, and there have been notices throughout school about their use of social media. A student has been deliberately singled out for having written a statement against it. This is silencing, this is an exercise of authority. Students voicing an opinion, and that opinion being shared widely, is not.
The visit was arranged in total secrecy, and all questions were seen in advance by staff. To add to that atmosphere of intimidation, the ambassador came with bodyguards.
The procedure was extremely atypical for speakers at our school. Speakers at our school are normally organised a week in advance, with a sign up sheet for anyone interested. Questions are not usually written down and then checked by staff. The structure is much more open and free-form.
Hosting the Israeli ambassador without providing the opportunity for students to challenge him implies that the ambassador is a figure so uncontroversial that there is no need to interrogate or scrutinise his record as a representative of the Israeli state.
The denigration or dismissal of students’ suggestions to move forward, such as inviting a Palestinian speaker, indicated that the school as an institution is neither interested in making amends nor is interested in a “dialogue” between respected equals, that is, they are not considering our complaints about this process to be serious.
But our use of social media, providing it is not used for bullying or harassment, cannot and should not be subjected to the control of the school.
There should be a transparent procedure for accepting speaker requests that is collaboratively decided on by students and staff. What this process looks like to me — however this is only a starting point for discussion — should be that the speaker must accept certain conditions in coming to speak: that they understand it will be an open forum, that it will not be held in secret and there will be time to prepare challenges. If a speaker demands secrecy, demands that their presence goes unchallenged, we should state that these demands are insupportable according to our school procedure. This, surely, is not too radical for a school that prides itself on independently-minded young girls.
The school subsequently apologised in the whole school assembly for the affair. This shows us the power of collective organising. When we come together and fight, we can and we will win.
• Full statement here