Islamic school increases security after Christchurch

Nada Shihata (pictured) believes education about Islam will increase tolerance towards young Muslim students. Photo Costa Haritos.
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The gates at Al Siraat College will be kept locked during school hours as a new security measure, with recent events having an impact on the mental health of some students. Costa Haritos reports.

An Islamic school in Melbourne has added new security measures after a truck driver was seen pretending to point a gun at students in the wake of the Christchurch attacks.

Leah Hamel is a staff member at Al Siraat College who says these events tend to increase with any terrorist incident.

“Our community is quite fearful,” Ms Hamel says.

The school gates will be kept locked during school hours and a security guard will ask people to present identification if they have an appointment.

The school gates will be kept locked at Al Siraat College during school hours as a new security measure. Photo Costa Haritos.

This adds to the measures already in place at the school, including lock down procedures, key pass locks and keeping all external doors lockedduring the day.

Ms Hamel says these are “small things that make people feel safe”.

Al Siraat has also adjusted staffing levels on school excursions to protect its students, particularly girls who are “abused” or confronted with strangers who “try to rip off their hijab”, Ms Hamel says.

“[These instances] have a big impact on them.

“It makes them feel like they are not Australian,” Ms Hamel says.

These experiences also affect the mental health of students, the staff member says.

“The anxiety levels, particularly in secondary school are very high,” Ms Hamel says.

Shehzi Yusaf is a clinical psychologist, who says children can feel marginalised after a traumatic event where the perpetrator shares the same ethnic background.

“The evidence suggests that group, suffers a higher rate of mental health problems,” Ms Yusaf says.

Students may experience anxiety “because of the stress of living in a society that does not accept them”, Ms Yusaf says.

The clinical psychologist has seen a rise in young Muslim clients with mental health disorders since the September 11, 2001 attacks.

“They have just lived in that era of hostility towards their religion,” Ms Yusaf says.

Ms Yusaf says the Muslim community regularly seeks her out because of her role as the convenor of the Psychology from an Islamic Perspective Interest Group.

“I understand their cultural and spiritual beliefs and their practices,” Ms Yusaf says.

Ms Yusaf helps her clients to understand their anxieties and assess the future level of threat through a cognitive appraisal approach.

Students and teachers at Al Siraat also engage in these open discussions following events where Muslims have been targeted.

The school offers a range of counselling services for students who are experiencing mental health symptoms.

A report by the Scanlon Foundation found between 15 and 22 percent of people support discrimination based on religion.

The Scanlon Foundation provides grants to improve social cohesion in areas of need across Australia.

Nada Shihata, who is the vice president of the Islamic Society at RMIT University, says she was “fortunate enough” not to have experienced this type of discrimination.

Ms Shihata says non-Islamic school students should learn more about the “true Islam”, which preaches peace and love.

Education will “combat existing stereotypes and misconceptions understood about the Islamic faith”, Ms Shihata says.

The Islamic Society at RMIT University creates an inclusive environment by spreading a balanced Islamic identity.

Ms Shihata says this will prevent all Muslims from being “painted with the same brush and observed in a negative or malicious manner”.

Fifty-one people lost their lives in the Christchurch attacks on 15 March, which took place at the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre during Friday Prayers.

The events that followed were largely positive, despite the initial shock and fear experienced by Ms Shihata.

“A place of worship and peace was no longer a place of safety,” Ms Shihata says.

Police and government officials visited Al Siraat College to offer their support after the attacks.

Leah Hamel says the school has a “good relationship” with the police, whose presence makes the students feel safe.

Al Siraat College identifies as an Australian school, which educates its pupils in the Islamic tradition.

The school also has an interfaith program with St Monica’s College and Thomastown Secondary College, which gives students the confidence to discuss their faith and beliefs.

“We believe dialogue is the way forward,” Ms Hamel says.

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