Three Muslim A level students are threatening to sue their sixth form college after they were suspended shortly before sitting their exams for sending an email to students and staff complaining of Islamophobia.
The trio of 19-year-olds were barred last month from the premises of the NewVIc college in Newham, east London, following a disagreement with senior staff over the cancellation of a discussion about anti-Muslim attitudes in society by a panel of invited guests.
The girls, who are still allowed to attend the college to sit their exam papers, are alleged to have flouted college rules by sending a round-robin email to hundreds of students and staff which was highly critical of the decision to cancel the talk and the principal, as well as criticising the Government’s “Prevent” counter-radicalisation strategy.
Lawyers for the trio - Tahyba Ahmed, Sumayyah Ashraf and Humayra Tasnim - have now written to the college seeking their reinstatement and warning that legal action is under consideration, claiming they have had to seek medical advice for stress arising from the incident. At least one of the young women is understood to have a place at university dependent on her A Level results.
In a statement, the students said the row had affected their preparation for their exams and they remained unclear about what they were alleged to have done wrong.
They said: “The entire incident has caused us considerable stress and has had a significant impact on us and our families. Our revision has been significantly interrupted and we no longer feel positive about our examination results.
“And we continue to remain at a loss as to what it is alleged we have done wrong. The allegation against us remains just that, an allegation, but we have felt the full force of a finding of guilt.”
The suspension has seen the young women, dubbed the “NewVIc3”, become a cause celebre on social media with an online petition and the college being criticised for alleged double-standards after it allowed a UKIP representative to address students during the recent election campaign.
But the college, which was praised in its most recent Ofsted inspection for offering a “harmonious atmosphere” to students, rejected any suggestion that it was seeking to silence the three girls, saying the suspension was solely because of the alleged infringement of its email rules, which required prior permission before round-robin messages can be sent.
The girls’ lawyers insisted that the college’s policy makes no specific mention of a ban round-robin emails. Law firm Armanaz Chambers said they also understood the college was not taking any formal disciplinary action over the dispute.
It is understood the trio were suspended only after the teaching of their courses had finished and they have been provided with access to relevant revision materials.
Eddie Playfair, the principal, said: “These students have been temporarily suspended for an alleged misuse of the college’s communication system, not because of raising issues about Islamophobia. NewVIc is very committed to fighting all forms of discrimination, including Islamophobia.”
The row underlines the sensitivities among Muslim communities about official efforts to combat radicalisation such as Prevent, which critics see as demonising Muslims and stifling legitimate debate but supporters argue is vital to counter the threat of recruitment by organisations such as Islamic State.
The NewVIc college is situated within a few miles of the Bethnal Green Academy, where three students travelled to Syria last year. There is no suggestion of a similar problem at NewVIc.
The dispute was sparked by the cancellation at short notice of a discussion at the college with a panel of invited guests, including a Muslim journalist and a local politician due to take place on 6 May. The students claim they were told the reason for the cancellation were unspecified concerns about the previously expressed views of an unnamed member of the panel.
The three girls were then suspended on 22 May after emailing a four-page letter criticising the college and setting out a list of 12 demands, including that it make a public statement criticising the Prevent strategy and invite groups critical of its implementation, including the campaign group CAGE.
The college said it was anxious to resolve the dispute but said neither the students nor their representatives had responded to requests to meet. Armanaz Chambers disputed this, saying that they had only been invited to make a written statement.