A school in Wakefield has taken the extraordinary step of suspending four pupils for slightly damaging a copy of the Quran. Kettlethorpe High School, which is a school with no religious character, has since faced pressure from local Muslims, including local councillors and mosque leaders, after the book was apparently dropped on the floor, causing minor scuff marks to some pages and a small tear on the cover. Humanists UK, which campaigns for freedom of religion or belief in schools, and for an end to all blasphemy laws, said it was alarmed by the story, offered its support to the children’s families, and called upon the UK Government to voice support for the pupils and clarify guidance for schools.
The incident came about after one pupil from a non-Muslim family who is autistic lost while playing a video game and was challenged as a ‘dare’ by a winning pupil to buy a Quran and bring it into school. He had bought a Bible earlier that week. The head has said there was ‘no ill intent’ on the part of the pupils involved.
When news emerged about the incident, the pupils received death threats. One of the boys’ mothers then appeared at a news conference alongside police in the local mosque, apologising for her child’s ‘disrespectful’ behaviour and seeking forgiveness from the community. No indication thus far has been forthcoming from the police that they intend to investigate the violent threats to the children. The mother has said that she does not want to press charges.
The story is the most recent in Yorkshire involving blasphemy and schools, after a teacher in Batley was suspended, and went into hiding, for showing a depiction of the prophet Muhammed in a lesson on free speech in an open society.
Great Britain does not have any blasphemy laws (although Northern Ireland unfortunately still does).
A Humanists UK spokesperson commented:
‘This story is horrendous: the school has seemingly acted in rash haste. There is no blasphemy law in Great Britain, and schools should not allow themselves to be pressured – whether directly or indirectly – into excessive disciplinary action in deference to religious groups. Kettlethorpe High School’s safeguarding policy clearly states that it will “give special consideration” to those with special needs: immediate suspension for a harmless, if perhaps misguided, prank where no violence took place, and leaving the children open to threats of physical violence as a result, would seem to run contrary to that policy. We offer our support and advice on freedom of religion or belief to any of the parents involved.
‘But schools are, regrettably, increasingly coming under pressure from religious zealots, whether it’s disciplinary issues like this, or with the content of their curriculum. So the UK Government must make a firm statement of support for the children, and also offer the school its full support when standing up to vocal religious groups outside of the school community – and we will be writing to them to this effect. Guidance for schools on how to handle such incidents would be merited.
‘Meanwhile the police should be taking any death threats against children very seriously indeed. It beggars belief that it should be necessary to clarify that public pillory and death threats are never an appropriate reaction to childish tomfoolery.’
Update, 1 March: This article originally could have been read as stating that pupils at Kettlethorpe High School were suspended in response to direct religious pressure for action of this nature. While there has clearly been unacceptable religious pressure on the school and pupils, we are unclear as to whether this pressure started prior to the suspensions. Reporting published prior to our piece has suggested that it was before. But in the absence of confirmation from a primary source, we have amended our article to remove any such implication while we work further to investigate the facts ourselves.
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