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UN Expert Alarmed By Violent Crackdown On Peaceful Student Protests Across US Campuses

WASHINGTON D.C. (10 May 2024) – The recent surge in attacks on student protests across US campuses signal a concerning erosion of intellectual freedom and democratic principles within educational settings, a UN expert warned today.

“I am deeply troubled by the violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators, arrests, detentions, police violence, surveillance and disciplinary measures and sanctions against members of the educational community exercising their right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression,” said Farida Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education, in a statement at the end of an official visit to the US.

“I am particularly concerned about the unequal treatment of protesters based on their political stance, particularly targeting pro-Palestinian demonstrators,” the Special Rapporteur said.

Shaheed’s 10-day visit coincided with anti-war demonstrations at universities across the United States and students setting up encampments inside campus premises in solidarity with Palestinians, calling for a ceasefire and for university administrations to review their investments with Israel, as civilian casualties mount in the besieged Gaza strip.

“These attacks signal a concerning erosion of intellectual freedom and democratic principles within educational settings,” the expert said. She urged the US Government to reaffirm its fundamental commitment to freedom of speech and ensure every student has unfettered access to a wide range of ideas and perspectives.

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Shaheed also expressed grave concern over a disturbing trend which has emerged across the United States, with 307 educational gag order bills or policies introduced by States since January 2021.

“These policies, manifested through book bans and restrictions on curricula, have instilled a pervasive ‘chilling effect’ that stifles the free exchange of ideas and silences marginalised voices,” she said.

During her visit, the Special Rapporteur found that chronic underfunding of education systems in the United States was at the core of many issues, including teacher shortages and student mental health support challenges.

Education in the US stands as a testament to decentralised decision-making, with authority dispersed across federal, state and local levels, Shaheed said.

“Administration of 51 education systems in the US is an intricate tapestry of diverse regulations, underpinned by different approaches to education in state constitutions and state laws,” the expert said.

Heavy reliance on local property taxes to fund education exacerbates inequalities, disproportionately affecting low-income neighbourhoods and marginalised communities. The proliferation of various school models further drains financial resources from already overstretched traditional public schools.

“Communities need to find a way to distribute funds more equitably between wealthier and poorer districts to end the cycle of deprivation and segregation,” she said. “I also urge the federal government to take decisive action to address disparities in educational funding,” she added.

The Special Rapporteur called on federal and state authorities to recognise education as a fundamental human right, ensuring equitable access for all, irrespective of background or identity, level of income, place of residence or other personal circumstances.

Shaheed noted that despite the federal non-discrimination safeguards, the issues of school safety and police presence in schools, mental health of students and overreliance on standardised testing are all interrelated and disproportionately negatively affect the same demographics across the nation: Black and Brown students, LGBTQ+, persons with disabilities, students with special education needs and English learners, including migrants and refugees.

“It is crucial to remove police presence from schools and invest in qualified personnel such as counsellors and social workers to create a safe and nurturing learning environment,” she said.

“It is time to shift the narrative, prioritising holistic growth and social interaction skills over standardised testing results reducing students to mere numbers.”

Shaheed visited Washington, D.C. and the states of Indiana and Colorado during her visit.

The Special Rapporteur will present a full report on her visit to the Human Rights Council in June 2025.

Ms Farida Shaheed took office as Special Rapporteur on the right to education on 1 August 2022 following her appointment by the Human Rights Council. She is the Executive Director of Pakistan’s leading gender justice organization, Shirkat Gah - Women’s Resource Centre. She is also an independent expert/consultant to numerous UN, international and bilateral development agencies, the government of Pakistan, as well as civil society initiatives, and serves on multiple international and national advisory committees. She served as a member of Pakistan’s National Commission on the Status of Women, and as the first Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights from 2009 to 2015.

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