The education minister yesterday urged schools not to encourage their pupils to take part in Occupy Central - which he deems "unlawful" - in a reversal of the stance he declared last year.
The civil disobedience campaign for democracy is also the trigger behind a warning that a pro-establishment group has issued to more than 500 secondary schools, reminding them of their legal responsibilities.
Teachers and democracy advocates saw the latest remarks by Education Secretary Eddie Ng Hak-kim as an attempt to create fear and put pressure on schools to eschew discussion of the movement.
Ng said: "We appeal to chairpersons of school boards, principals, teachers and parents … not to take part in or arrange for pupils to join the unlawful Occupy Central. It's impossible for [the campaign] not to break the law."
He warned teachers they might be putting their jobs on the line. "Teachers should obey the law. If they are convicted because of participation in unlawful events, they must face ... consequences for their careers."
In March last year, Ng said schools should let pupils "develop their own thoughts" on Occupy and "will not take any retrospective action against teachers" who took pupils to join it.
The campaign vows to mobilise more than 10,000 people to block the main streets of Central if the government fails to offer a satisfactory plan for universal suffrage in the 2017 election of the chief executive. The government plans to put forward its reform proposal later this year.
One of its organisers said Ng's words were meant to strike fear into educators. "Many supporters of Occupy Central are teachers," Dr Chan Kin-man said. "Ng's remarks constitute deprivation of teachers' civil rights."
Parents might also be emboldened to pressurise schools into avoiding the topic, he said.
The Professional Teachers' Union expressed condemnation as well. "Teachers have to encourage pupils to think independently and make rational judgment … Ng's remarks amount to serious political pressure." The union will petition Ng today.
Isabel Chan Fung-man, president of Kowloon City's parent-teacher association, said it was necessary for liberal studies teachers to open the topic for discussion, and to "encourage pupils to analyse it and decide for themselves" whether to join in.
But James Lam Yat-fung, chairman of the Subsidised Secondary Schools Council, saw Ng as giving schools direction on how to react to the movement.
Meanwhile, an anti-Occupy group wrote to scores of secondary schools, warning them of the consequences should their pupils become part of the action.
"Many teachers encourage pupils in liberal studies classes to join Occupy. We do not want to see pupils being misled into taking part," Robert Chow Yung, one of six convenors of the Silent Majority for Hong Kong, said.
The group cautioned that parents might take civil action against schools for negligence of duty of care if pupils who had been egged on were arrested or injured during events.
Barrister Albert Luk Wai-hung said there might not be enough grounds for such civil claims. "It is hard to define whether Occupy Central is unlawful now, as [the occupation of Central streets] has not happened yet," he said.
Additional reporting by Shirley Zhao