A high school teacher who assigned her class to plan a terrorist attack that would kill as many innocent Australians as possible had no intent to promote terrorism, education officials said Wednesday.
The Year 10 students at Kalgoorlie-Boulder Community High School in the state of Western Australia were given the assignment last week in a class on contemporary conflict and terrorism.
Principal Terry Martino said he withdrew the assignment as soon as he heard of it.
But after news of the assignment was published in Wednesday's West Australian newspaper, talk radio and online forums began a busy debate and some survivors of terror attacks across Australia - which has been a target of terror campaigns at home and abroad - came forward to express their outrage.
"It's extremely offensive if you've ever been involved in it," said Peter Hughes, who was burned over half of his body in the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, on the Indonesian resort island.
"It's something they would probably do in some radical school in Indonesia. For it to be done in the state education system is mind-blowing," he told the newspaper.
The students were asked to pretend they were terrorists making a political statement by releasing a chemical or biological agent on "an unsuspecting Australian community," according to a copy of the assignment received by the West Australian newspaper.
The task included choosing the best time to attack and explaining their choice of victims and what effects the attack would have on a human body.
"Your goal is to kill the MOST innocent civilians in order to get your message across," the assignment read.
Grades were to be allocated based on students' ability to analyze information they had learned on terrorism and chemical and biological warfare and apply it to a real-life scenario, the newspaper reported.
Sharyn O'Neill, director-general of the state's Department of Education, said the class was meant to teach students about conflict and seeing other people's perspectives but that the teacher had made an insensitive, unprofessional mistake.
"The teacher, with every best intention, was attempting to have the students think through someone else's eyes about conflict," O'Neill told reporters in Perth. "I think there are better ways to do that. ... This is not what we expect of professional educators."
O'Neill said she had requested a full report on the incident but believed the school had taken the correct action by immediately withdrawing the assignment and counseling the teacher about the inappropriate nature of her method.
The school declined to identify the teacher, citing her privacy, and her name also was not given in the newspaper report. She was in her mid-20s and had been teaching for three years, O'Neill said.
"I think it was well-intentioned but she has made a mistake, and she's very remorseful for not thinking this task through," O'Neill said.
Student Sarah Gilbert, 15, told the newspaper she was horrified by the assignment.
"I was shocked and quite offended," she said. "I'm offended that it's Australia but I'm disgusted because it doesn't matter where it is, it's still not something you ask someone to do or think about. ... There is a difference between being a terrorist and learning about terrorism."
Gilbert - whose mother lost a relative in the Bali bombings - wrote a letter to her teacher refusing to do the assignment.
"Even though it may seem petty, to me my beliefs are more important than an "A" stating I am smart," Gilbert wrote. A copy of her letter was published by the newspaper.
Australia, a staunch U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, has lost more than 100 citizens in terrorist attacks overseas, mostly in Indonesia. In recent years, it has uncovered two major terrorist plots against Australia and arrested a dozen people on terrorism and conspiracy charges.
Brian Deegan, whose son, Josh, was killed in the 2002 Bali bombings, said the reality of terror plots at home in Australia is exactly why students should learn about terrorism in school. He said the teacher could have been on to a good idea if the end result of her lesson was to extract feelings of regret and sympathy for the victims of their fictional massacre.
"I think discussion about it in classrooms is a bloody good idea, as long as that's the direction it's going in," Deegan told The Associated Press. "If it was intended to teach them about the impact, the effect of terrorism on innocent people and to try and extract sympathy, empathy and regretfulness in the aftermath, then I think that it's a positive move. Anything else and it's plainly stupid."