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Germany

Fear in the Schoolyard

Schools in Germany are grappling with a rise in violence ranging from verbal abuse and bullying to physical injury. Teachers' and police unions have now unveiled a new initiative to tackle the problem.

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No longer just simple teasing

Helge Dietrich says that his students' favorite expression is "son of a bitch." A teacher at a high school in Berlin's Mitte district and state chairman of the trade union for teachers (VDE), Dietrich has been observing an increase in rowdy behavior at schools in Berlin.

"It doesn't take very long for verbal abuse to then turn into fisticuffs," Dietrich said.

Dietrich's experience illustrates what his organization and the German police trade union (DPoLG) were trying to draw attention to at a meeting in Berlin on Monday: that violence in German schools is on the rise.

Schools helpless

Various studies support the claim. Statistics from Berlin's education department show that almost 19 percent of the 560 cases of school violence registered in 2003 - 04 took place on the way to school.

Schüler auf dem Schulweg

In 2003, an investigation by the Federal Criminal Office found that 5 percent of all students regularly engaged in violence; a third occasionally indulged in fights. A separate study by the Weisser Ring, an association for crime victims, found that every third student was too scared to cross the schoolyard during recess or even step on to the road leading to the school. Every second girl said she was frightened on the way to school and back home.

"The quality of violence has increased and in a negative way," said Ludwig Eckinger, VDE national head. "That means students are ready to hit more quickly even when their so-called victim is already injured. We're observing this aggressive behavior in all kinds of school and all over the country."

Gewalt in der Schule

Aggressive behavior at school can take many forms -- from bullying a fellow student, abusing him, jostling him, stealing his jacket or sneakers to actual physical injury. Most teachers and schools are said to be overwhelmed by the dimensions of the problem.

Closer links between schools and police

To counter the growing menace, the VDE and the DPoLG unveiled a new initiative in Berlin on Monday which foresees an intensified cooperation between schools and the police.

Wolfgang Speck, chairman of the DPoLG pointed out that school teachers and police in Germany have already been working together for decades when it comes to teaching traffic sense and regulations to students or providing them information on the dangers of drug abuse. The two can now work together along the same lines when it comes to containing violence at schools, Speck said.

Amoklauf in Erfurter Gymnasium SEK

Armed police enter the Gutenberg school in Erfurt on April 26, 2002 after a student ran amok and killed 18 people.

In future, uniformed officers are expected to be a regular feature in school corridors. Police officials will also conduct preventive classes in dealing with violence, which is already the case in some German states, including Berlin.

The new initiative also foresees every school having their own contact person in the next police station and vice versa. They are expected to exchange information on potentially violent students. "That means that when a violent incident takes place at a school the designated police officer arrives there as soon as possible. That gives the message: when something untoward happens the police are there," said Speck.

The close contact between schools and the cops is also meant to build trust, in particular among young foreign students who often have bad experiences with the police in their countries of origin.

Hurdles to overcome

The concept already seems to be working in some places, such as the school in Berlin where Helge Dietrich teaches. "The police who come to our school, go into the classrooms and make it clear to the students what violence actually is," said Dietrich. "They also familiarize the students with how they can deescalate violence."

Despite the optimism surrounding the new initiative, cooperation between the police and schools is not expected to be all smooth.

Jugendgewalt

In addition to the fact that many states are unable to fund such projects in the face of dwindling coffers, the police's demand that all offenses at school be reported to them are also said to be unpopular among school directors worried that it might damage the reputation of their institutions.

"Actually every school director should be happy about such offers (of cooperation with the police) and one must be ready to learn that what is a deficit isn't necessarily a statement on how bad a school is," said Eckinger. "Instead, the director should say, 'We want to solve the problem'."

That's also a reason why the police suspect that the actual cases of violence at schools may be much higher than the statistics show, given that many simply go unreported.

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