A brutal public assault on three Chinese high school students in Canberra last week has sent shock waves through the Australian capital, with local authorities responding quickly to clamp down on intimidation and harassment of international students.

Police were called to the Woden bus interchange in South Canberra at 7.30pm on Monday, October 23, after reports the three students had been assaulted by two suspects. Friends of the victims told The Canberra Times the suspects had initially approached the trio asking for cigarettes before attacking the boys when they declined.

All three students were assaulted, with one 17-year-old admitted to hospital for his injuries. He has since been released. The two suspects were arrested and have faced an initial hearing at the Children’s Court. Both are reportedly locals. Police denied the attack was racially motivated.

Police have increased patrols at the station, which the government sought to revitalise after years of disrepair and complaints of antisocial behaviour in the area.

Police have not been able to provide further comment as the matter is before the courts but have worked closely with the international student community since the attack, including hosting a safety workshop for the three victims and consulting community leaders.

“In response to this particular incident police held, in conjunction with the Education Directorate, meetings with Chinese community leaders, students, carers and parents,” a statement issued by police last week said.

“At the meeting, students’ personal safety, Australian policing and the local justice system were discussed, including the importance of contacting police if they felt they were in danger or witnessed antisocial or criminal behaviour.”

Canberra hosts an estimated 19,000 international students attending high schools, colleges and universities, with the Chinese cohort believed to account for a large share of that figure. Education has become one of Australia’s most lucrative export sectors in recent years, raking in A$21.8 billion (US$16.7 billion) a year.

The local government has been quick to respond to the latest incident, keen to stamp out any notion that international students in Canberra are particularly vulnerable to racially motivated violence or vilification, as they have been in larger cities such as Sydney and Melbourne.

“Over the past week, government directorates have been working closely together to ensure that international students are supported through this time,” the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Education Minister Yvette Berry said on Thursday.

The education directorate has been in contact with the families of the students attacked, and has been working with the Chinese embassy to reassure families that their children are safe in the nation’s capital. Chinese representatives at the embassy in Canberra have thanked the local authorities for their help in the case and in a statement posted to the official website said investigations would continue.

But despite the assurances of the police and the government, many students still do not feel safe in Canberra. A Change.org petition calling for “the police to reinforce the rule of law by taking further substantial steps to stop the bullies from their crimes, so international students can receive their quality education in a peaceful environment here in Canberra” was circulated widely online last week, attracting nearly 4,000 signatories.

The sentiment appeared to be echoed in Beijing, with the Global Times newspaper publishing an editorial on Monday suggesting the incident – and reports of verbal abuse and intimidation in Canberra – could cause prospective students to reconsider Canberra as a destination for education.

The newspaper linked the reports to the Australian policy of “friendliness” towards China, saying “this incident and the series of recent negative events and comments against Chinese in Australia will constitute a turning point, reshaping Chinese people’s foundation for understanding Australian society”.

Winson Wiranto, the president of the International Students Department at the Australian National University, disagreed. He said Canberra remained a welcoming and harmonious city, its laid-back pace a welcome change for students hailing from more bustling parts of the world.

“The recent incident is a one-off, from my perspective. In Canberra, the community is very strong and supportive and most people get along with each other,” he said.

He conceded harassment against international students does occur but is typically verbal intimidation from Uber and taxi drivers or along Northbourne Avenue, a street which runs through the city near the campus and is known as a “dodgy” area among ANU’s international student community.

“The responsibility lies on student leaders and communities as well as the institutions to let people know where the problem spots are,” he said. “The trouble happens when students come here and don’t know where is bad and can get into danger. I’ve heard about Nazi groups in other places, but there’s nothing like that here.”

He also praised local police for engaging international students regularly since the attack.

Both the minister and authorities have reminded students that local police are on hand to help in times of need, rejecting concerns within the community that engagement with police could result in visa issues.

“Reporting violence or crime will have no impact on the visas that international students have and students are encouraged to report incidences of violence if they occur,” Berry said.