German school runs scheme to stop spread of extremism among teenagers | News | DW | 25.11.2016
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German school runs scheme to stop spread of extremism among teenagers

With the social make-up of communities across Europe changing, schools have become breeding grounds for extremism. A German school is taking part in a program to develop preventative techniques to combat radical ideas.

There seems to be growing fear in the West of radical ideas taking hold - if recent election results are anything to go by. Votes like the Brexit poll or the US elections show, however, that the expansion of radical Islamism is met with an equal response on the other end of the political spectrum, with populist movements surging in Europe, the US and beyond.

What both camps appear to have in common is that they offer simple and radical solutions to complex problems - not just appealing to those of voting age. The seed for such radicalism can be sown early on, with schools increasingly becoming a frontline for recruiters of extremist ideas.

A school in Bonn is trying to counter this trend. The Elisabeth-Selbert-Gesamtschule, a comprehensive school with students from fifth grade to graduation age, is part of a pilot project that is exploring new techniques in combating and, chiefly, preventing the radicalization of youths. Organized and financed by Germany's Federal Agency for Civic Education (BPB), the "Clearing Procedure and Case Management" program is currently being trialed at six schools across Germany, aimed at curbing extremism by way of early intervention.

Bonn Elisabeth-Selbert-Gesamtschule Andrea Frings (DW/S. Sanderson)

Principal Andrea Frings believes in the value of having multicultural school - but wants to stop radical ideas from finding a way in

School Principal Andrea Frings says the district the school is situated in, Bad Godesberg, has undergone a fair amount of social change in recent years, sometimes resulting in violent acts:

"Our part of town has witnessed its share of events fueled by extremism, both in terms of fundamentalist Islam but also rightwing extremism. Yet we see ourselves as a colorful school community within this area. About 40 - 50 percent of our students are Muslim. We all get along very well here, but it also happens that students sometimes bring problems to the school from their homes or their mosques, and that's always something we need to take a look at," Frings told DW.

A changing community

The Elisabeth-Selbert-Gesamtschule has about 1,200 students, which is quite large by most German standards. Located at the heart of what used to be the diplomats' district of Germany's erstwhile capital, the face of Bonn's Bad Godesberg has long changed. On the one hand, it continues to be an international neighborhood attracting expats from around the world; on the other, both foreigners and locals with extremist ideas have been flocking to the district.

About three miles south, a school sponsored by the Saudi government has come under fire in the past for allegedly having ties to al Qaeda, while "Women in Black" wearing niqabs and abayas have become a commonplace sight on Bad Godesberg's shopping streets. The news of the murder of a 17-year-old schoolboy earlier in the year has drawn local communities further apart, with the case making headline news for days on end.

Deutschland Niqab - Trägerin in Bad Godesberg (picture-alliance/U. Baumgarten)

Bad Godesberg has been undergoing a great deal of social upheaval, with migrant communities often failing to integrate

Principal Frings, however, says that the community should not be driven by fear and prejudice, but look for strength in diversity instead:

"Our district is quite polarized socially, so we're trying to achieve the opposite of that. Parents have repeatedly told me that extremism is on the rise. However, I don't believe we need to be alarmed by this. Our open and friendly school system is absolutely important for us. We trust in our preventative measures and hope that we can present young people with better ideas than those extremists," she said.

Young and innocent?

While her school has long worked to bring the multicultural members of her community together, the BPB project introduces an added layer of safety and precaution to the neighborhood. It is designed to go beyond issues of integration and diversity, targeting children who "hit a certain age when they sometimes become a bit too lazy to think for themselves, while constantly looking for a sense of orientation in life," said Frings.

Deutschland Bonn Bad Godesberg Gedenkstätte Niklas (DW/C. Bleiker)

The murder of 17-year-old schoolboy Niklas at this little roundabout has put the community further on edge

"All that it takes (to radicalize them) then is just an added personal problem or conflict," she added.

Hanne Wurzel, an expert on extremism at BPB, said that due to lacking scientific insight into preventative measures, the organization "decided to develop a hands-on approach to counter these trends" instead.

"The project is based on a so-called clearing method, which in itself builds on seven steps, with each step addressing what needs to be done when young people show changes and abnormalities in their behavior," Wurzel told DW.

Unchartered territory

Wurzel says that there are new challenges emerging constantly when it comes to "the prevention of the spread of Islamism."

"The potential of witnessing such radicalization in schools is constantly growing. Young people suffer major setbacks in their development and their personal history when these radical ideas take hold. The same is true for rightwing extremism," she explained.

"Teachers don't know what to do in these situations, and they can't know because that's not what they've been trained in. The goal isn't to equip teachers with techniques how to solve these problems but rather point them in the right direction to seek help when they need it."

Andrea Frings concurs, saying that not only teachers but parents and students as well can quite easily get to feel overwhelmed when they observe "a negative development with one of the students. This is why there now is a young social scientist in charge of this project at the school. She helps with counseling in these situations, but is also part of the BPB team devising a concept for the prevention of radicalization," she told DW.

However, the BPB admits that it's trying to navigate a difficult field with only little direction. Hanne Wurzel says that there's no telling how successful the pilot scheme may turn out to be, "but the fact that many schools applied to be part of the pilot scheme shows that there is a great need to address the issue of radicalism in schools."

"We hope that beyond the primary task of dealing with radicalization, it will also help to highlight how desperately our schools need social work in general."

Bonn Elisabeth-Selbert-Gesamtschule (DW/S. Sanderson)

The Elisabeth-Selbert-Gesamtschule prides itself in teaching the values enshrined in Germany's constitution, the Basic Law

An exercise in democracy

The BPB says it hopes to present initial results in late 2018, at which point the future of the pilot program will also be decided. Whether schools are the right place of intervention when it comes to curbing radicalism and defending Germany's democracy is yet to be seen. Principal Frings, however, underlines that, as with all things in her field, education is key:

"Our school is named after Elisabeth Selbert. She was one of the mothers of Germany's Basic Law after World War II. And that Basic Law is our foundation, the groundwork of community. When we discuss this in class our students are always amazed at all there is to discover in this document. They get enthusiastic about children's rights, but other issues as well, like personal rights, freedom of speech, freedom of religion. What you can do with these liberties never ceases to amaze them."