A a white nationalist convicted of what a judge called a ‘hate crime’ against Muslims is running to sit on the board of a multicultural New Zealand school, raising alarm over the adequacy of the laws governing influential bodies and a debate over whether people with extremist views should be banned.
Philip Arps, one of nine candidates for five board positions at Te Aratai College in Christchurch, was jailed for 21 months in 2019 for sharing footage of a white supremacist terror attack on two mosques in the city from the South Island. He asked a friend to modify the footage by adding a crosshair and a “kill count”.
He has 50 criminal convictions and served 13 prison terms, but Arps’ candidacy for the school board is legitimate under New Zealand law determining the disqualifying factors, according to the Ministry of Education, and was accepted by the company organizing the vote.
In 2019, a judge said Arps held strong and unrepentant views about the Muslim community and had, in fact, committed a hate crime. The judge said Arps compared himself to Rudolf Hess, a Nazi leader under Adolf Hitler.
“Your offense glorifies and encourages mass murder perpetrated under the guise of religious and racial hatred,” the judge said.
The outcry over Arps’ race has shone a spotlight on New Zealand’s school board elections, which often attract low turnout and little competition – a far cry from the cultural battlegrounds that divide the United States . But the three to seven members have significant influence over all aspects of school life, including curriculum, hiring, uniform, culture and behavior management — and more recently, public health. and cultural issues that have proven to be hotbeds of debate.
Richard Edmundson, the headmaster of Te Aratai College, less than a mile from one of the mosques attacked in 2019, told the Guardian that 20% of eligible voters – parents and guardians of current students – cast ballots in the election of the school board on Monday. .
Edmundson will not comment on Arps’ candidacy, to allow for a fair election process. He said he was proud to lead a multicultural school – 63% of pupils are Maori, Pacific or Asian – where the board had voted this year to affirm a set of values, suggested by pupils and staff, of “manaakitanga”. . [respect and generosity]whanaungatanga [working together]rangatiratanga [self-determination] and turangawaewae [the place one has a right to stand]”.
The school a student can attend in New Zealand is determined by where they live; The candidate statement released publicly by Arps indicates that he has children who are future students. Board members are not required to be parents of current students, although many are.
Arps, a trader who previously ran an insulation business that was removed from a review website due to branding described by a judge as ‘Nazi-related’, hasn’t served all of his 21-month sentence for distributing the video of the mosque attack. His previous convictions include an offensive behavior charge for leaving a box containing a bloody pig’s head outside a mosque in 2016.
Arpes filmed the incident, during which he used the phrase “white power”. His lawyer in 2019 describes his client’s point of view as “nationalist”, and the judges spoke of his “deep enmity towards people of Muslim and Jewish faith” and “extreme ideological views.”
“The directors are worried”
Vaughan Couillault, president of the Association of Secondary School Principals of New Zealand, said “almost anyone” could run for school boards in Aotearoa.
“What’s a little quirk is that a volunteer football coach has to be policed, but the board as a governing body with a much more influential role doesn’t have to be policed. by the police,” Couillault said. He added that board members generally have far less unsupervised contact with students.
“But it’s probably time to look at the criteria that disqualify you and see if they’re still appropriate,” he said.
Arps’ candidacy prompted the government to look into the matter – not for the first time. New Zealand school boards are powerful, fairly autonomous and responsible, along with headteachers, for ensuring that their schools comply with dozens of laws.
In recent years, school obligations include rolling out a new Aotearoa stories curriculum in New Zealand and a legal mandate to reflect Maori customs, knowledge and worldviews.
An important education report 2019 expressed concern that some boards did not have the skills, knowledge or resources to meet their growing responsibilities and recommended, among other measures, a national code of conduct for board members .
A law change in 2020 allowed the government to create one, but Jan Tinetti, the associate education minister, told Radio New Zealand this week that the proposed mandatory standards were still under development.
“I don’t want to rush through a case at this point because I don’t want any unintended consequences to come out of it,” she said.
It was unclear whether a code would or could be used to screen candidates before they were elected; school board candidates are not required to disclose their opinions in their nomination papers and do not declare their political affiliations.
Tinetti had also sought urgent clarification from officials about laws governing candidate eligibility, which have been interpreted as not disqualifying Arps despite his past prison sentences.
The case of Arps is unique; his name and opinions are widely known and he has a documented record of infractions. But the cases encountered by other schools are not so simple.
Te Aratai College is one of hundreds of schools currently appointing new boards across the country. Most did not have to hold a ballot because there were as many or fewer candidates than the number of positions available.
Education groups have expressed concern that single-issue candidates – especially those who oppose public health measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 in schools – could be elected unchallenged or without the voters knowing their point of view.
Some schools have faced violent disputes over mask mandates and vaccinations, and the stress of the pandemic has led some longtime and qualified members to quit.
“Headmasters are concerned about parents entering councils that have a specific curriculum,” said Cherie Taylor-Patel, president of the New Zealand Headmasters’ Federation. “Often, new board members don’t understand that they have no say in the day-to-day running of the school. »
She was convinced that all challenges could be overcome, but some scholars feared that New Zealand’s school governance models – which involve good faith commitment and a shared idea of what is good for students – were ripe for change. be exploited.
“At any level you measure it, in Aotearoa, on every metric, you can see the deterioration of society and the social fabric of civil relations,” said Sanjana Hattotuwa, a researcher at the disinformation project.
He said New Zealanders’ unusually high faith in their democracy had generated a lack of investment in its safeguards, and school boards were an example of those with extreme views “testing the democratic limits of society”.