THE NSW Department of Education was warned it had repeatedly failed to respond to the ‘‘foreseeable risk’’ of religious groups trying to convert students in public schools only days before a police investigation into allegations that a Sydney student had preached Islamic State ideology in the playground.
The department had allowed public schools to serve as ‘‘mission fields for faith groups’’ and had failed to act on complaints of religious material containing violent messages, Newcastle academic and Human Rights Advocacy Australia spokesman Dr Darrin Morgan said in a letter to department secretary Dr Michelle Bruniges on July 20.
He said it had left principals ill-equipped to identify attempts to ‘‘convert or proselytise’’. It followed more than 10 months of complaints.
But while the department in March acknowledged Dr Morgan’s concerns that Christian and other religious groups ‘‘have aims of converting students to their religious beliefs’’, it supported prayer groups at NSW schools based on ‘‘the principles of freedom of religion and conscience’’.
On Tuesday NSW Premier Mike Baird announced an audit of prayer groups in public schools after allegations an Epping Boys High student preached Islamic State ideology at the school.
‘‘We will never allow (schools) to become the setting for extremist ideologies,’’ Mr Baird said.
But Dr Morgan said his repeated warnings had gone unheard because the complaints were about extremist Christian views.
‘‘What’s happening right now is exactly what I was warning them about,’’ he said.
‘‘They allow faith-based organisations committed to beliefs contrary to the values of public education into schools outside the time allocated to scripture, and they don’t manage the foreseeable risks.
‘‘It’s a mess, but you can’t cherry pick which religions with extremist views you allow in, and which ones you don’t.’’
In complaints in September, November and February Dr Morgan called on the department to stop religious volunteers from having access to children outside scripture hours because of the unmonitored and unregulated nature of the access, and the stated views of some Christian groups at Hunter, Central Coast and Sydney schools.
Dr Morgan asked the department to act after some evangelical Christian groups stated they wanted ‘‘high school students to take the gospel to their school community’’, offered enticements such as ‘‘Chips for Jesus’’ lunchtime sessions, and offered disturbing views on homosexuality contrary to department guidelines.
In a letter to the department in November Dr Morgan alleged a Christian group advised students to ‘‘stand firm in the Bible’’ and not condone homosexuality.
The department was failing to act in cases where religious groups made it clear their intention was ‘‘to make disciples of those children who do not identify as Christian’’, Dr Morgan wrote.
In a letter in March, department deputy secretary Gregory Prior advised Dr Morgan that complaints had to be made to school principals, and ‘‘these are
systemic issues that the department does not want to engage in,’’ Dr Morgan said.
NSW Greens MP and education spokesman John Kaye says fundamentalist Christian groups had been given free rein in NSW public schools.
“The minute there is a whiff of radical Islam exploiting the lack of effective regulation, Premier Mike Baird decides to act,’’ Dr Kaye said.
The Greens supported the audit of religious activities in schools but said the NSW Government had ‘‘allowed radical Islam to infiltrate NSW public schools’’ by failing to respond to alleged breaches by other religious groups over an extended period.