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European teachers gather to fight youth radicalization

EU education ministers and teachers draft a manifesto against radicalization in schools at a meeting in Paris

European education ministers gathered in Paris on Tuesday in a first-ever meeting to share strategies on combating the growing tide of youth lured by armed groups in Syria and Iraq.

Nearly 100 teachers from European Union member states authored “A Manifesto for Education — Empowering Educators in Schools." With support from the Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN) — a European umbrella network of teachers, social workers, health officials and others who engage with at-risk youth — the educators lobbied the EU education to minister to receive training to help them detect radicalization at an early stage.

Now that more than 4,000 young people have left Europe for Syria to join armed groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), policymakers are scrambling to reverse the trend.

“The goal is to flag what challenges teachers face and share some of the best practices that have emerged,” said Omar Ramadan, leader of the RAN Network, which is sponsored by the European Commission.

One prevention strategy advocated by RAN is equipping teachers with the right tools and "difficult conversation" skills to engage in a dialogue with the students when a problem is first noticed. Familiarity with online platforms where recruiters lurk, the creation of teacher support hotlines, involving parents in their efforts and partnerships with local NGOs should help speed up this process, according to the teachers' manifesto.

“The sooner we intervene, the more effective prevention can be,” Ramadan said.

Social media play a crucial role in the recruitment of foreign fighters and brides, who share videos and other ISIL propaganda among sympathizers.

One way to counter the effects of such tactics, the teachers said, would be to discuss the extremist materials in the classroom and offer alternative narratives on “democratic values.” Additionally, the introduction of debating skills in the school curriculum could help pupils challenge the extremist ideas themselves.

Another suggestion consists of putting students in touch with NGOs and other organizations that provide emergency relief to refugees in Syria and Iraq to channel their feelings of injustice. 

The teachers also recommend inviting survivors of civilian attacks or former extremists to share their experiences with students. Those first-hand accounts could serve as deterrents to recruitment or offer students role models.

The manifesto follows other attempts at tackling extremism in schools, such as the U.K.’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which requires teachers to report on pupils’ expressions of religious hatred.

That law sparked outrage in the U.K., as critics feared that spying on students might worsen the community distrust that fuels extremism. While the manifesto is supportive of an effective collaboration with law enforcement, it warns of the risks of undermining trust with heavy-handed security tactics.

“Repression is the last resort. Let’s never forget to install preventative measures,” Ramadan said.

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