Andrew Tagg who used to represent Skircoat ward for the Conservatives and stood unsuccessfully for election to Ovenden ward in the Calderdale Council elections at the start of the month, urged senior councillors and public health officials to take up the issue with the pupils’ school, Halifax Academy.
The school however says it is proud of the support most of the pupils showed for the cause they were protesting about and says the majority were well behaved – a minority who were not have been excluded.
And the council’s Leader has backed the right to protest and said guidance had been given by public health officials about safety measures under which it took place.
Mr Tagg says he cycled through the protest at around 11.15am on Monday morning, May 17, and claims he saw around 200 pupils in Halifax Academy uniform walking “closely packed” and taking up part of Spring Hall Lane, Halifax, protesting about the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
“There appeared to be only three members of what could have been staff around the gate area at the north end of the Academy.
“No police appeared to be present.
“Several students came right up to me shouting ‘Free Palestine’ in my face, most of the students were not socially distancing and numerous were not wearing face coverings,” he said.
Mr Tagg said this raised issues of safeguarding the students and health issues relating to the spread of COVID-19.
He believed the council needed to get involved as the protest was at odds with COVID safety guidelines the council itself was promoting.
Mr Tagg also said he believed councillors should not be involved in organising any protests when the COVID-19 pandemic was still of great concern – other protests have been supported by some councillors.
Matt Perry, Headteacher of Secondary at The Halifax Academy, said action had been taken where pupils had behaved in a way which was unsafe but the school supported the stance they had taken and the protest had taken place in their break time.
“In light of the horrific situation in Palestine, we have been working closely with our students to discuss the conflict and ways they can help Palestinian people at this heart-breaking time.
“We are proud of the support that our students are showing for this cause, and for their fundraising ideas and mature discussions with our tutors.
“A number of our students took part in a protest at school, in their break-time, regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, like many others across the country.
“The vast majority of students did this peacefully and maturely, which they are well within their rights to do, and returned to their lessons afterwards.
“However, a small minority of the students protesting behaved irresponsibly, put the health and safety of themselves and others at risk and refused to return to class when asked by staff.
“In line with our policies, we worked with the Police to deal with the unacceptable behaviour that was taking place outside school, and we excluded the students who behaved in an unsafe way and refused to return to school when asked.
“Our priority is to keep our school a safe and calm place to learn,” he said.
Leader of Calderdale Council, Coun Tim Swift (Lab, Town) backed the pupils’ right to protest when it was done safely and guidance had been given to Halifax Academy.
“The current situation in Palestine is devastating, and we understand that people across Calderdale are keen to show their support for those who are suffering.
“We are proud of our young people for voicing their concerns, but it’s important that they do this in a sensitive and responsible way, and we know that the majority do.
“In response to the protest at Halifax Academy, the school contacted our Public Health team and followed all the guidance given, as well as the Police’s advice and the school’s own policies.
“We are confident that the school managed the situation in a way that reduced the risk to student and staff health and safety and to ensure that the protest was lawful,” he said.
Mr Tagg said he remained unhappy about what had happened and questioned the wisdom of allowing the protest to go-ahead.
“How was such protest going to fulfil the requirement to maintain student bubble separation, a requirement for schools to maintain safety?” he said.
Conservative group Leader on Calderdale Council, Coun Steven Leigh (Con, Ryburn) supported Mr Tagg’s raising the concern, felt important points had been made and that the protest in the present COVID circumstances, was unwise and a potential danger to public health.
A senior councillor who is chair of Halifax Friends of Palestine, Coun Jenny Lynn, who is Cabinet member for Public Services and Communities, said HFOP had nothing to do with the pupils’ protest and she was not aware of it until after it had happened.
But in terms of the right to protest generally, she said care had been taken.
“Halifax Friends of Palestine has organised four roadside protest vigils over the past week, in Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and Halifax.
“Each one lasted no more than an hour, the police and our community protection team were aware of them, and people attending were asked to keep socially distanced, with many people, though not everyone wearing a mask.
“The response from the general public has been very positive,” she said.