Schools work to cope with threat of shootings | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 26.05.2012
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Schools work to cope with threat of shootings

A 14-year-old went on a shooting spree this week in a school in Bavaria. Fortunately, no one was harmed, but bringing violence under control and preventing school rampages is a daunting daily task for police.

Police in the Bavaria arrested a 14-year-old boy this week following a tense standoff with authorities after he shot at least on weapon at his school. The incident is an example of the lower threshold for violence among young people, according to school psychologist Axel Röplinger.

"The willingness to perform violent acts among students has decreased," he said.

Röplinger is one of the school psychologists the state of Baden-Württemberg has hired to supplement staff following a 2009 rampage in the town of Winnenden, near Stuttgart. There, a student killed 15 and injured 14 others before killing himself.

The number of psychologists in Baden-Württemberg schools is supposed to double over the next three years, bringing the number to 200.

Other German states are also creating new positions for school counselors and social workers. Despite strapped budgets, state ministries of education are freeing up funds to pay for the specialists. School bullying prevention programs have proved effective in schools across Germany, with the states of Thuringia and Berlin organizing special seminars for teachers and parents.

The seminars aim to train people to recognize and interpret the signs of an imminent act of violence or a rampage while it can still be prevented. Previous shootings at German schools have been preceded by concrete signs. Perpetrators were isolated loners with a penchant for weapons and computer games that graphically depicted violence, and were students who often felt overwhelmed and put under pressure. Such students are to receive more focused offers of support.

German special police forces arrive at a local sportsground where an armed eighth-grader is hiding in Memmingen on May 22, 2012.

The alarm sounded after a 14-year-old boy opened fire at a Memmingen school

Schools, not fortresses

The strategy of offering more help and attention to potential perpetrators of violence in schools and addressing the causes of violence seems to be working. After deadly rampages in Erfurt, Emsdetten and Winnenden, no small number of politicians began demanding more comprehensive security technology in schools.

The German Parliament's Committee on Internal Affairs debated whether students should be checked for weapons at school entrances. But metal detectors like those at airports are not present in German schools. The idea of a chip card system for entering schools was also turned down during debate.

"We want an atmosphere in which students feel comfortable," representatives from the Teachers Association and the German Philologists Association have unanimously agreed. Police and school officials should try to avoid creating spaces which induce fear and threaten abuse, they added.

Emergency plans in place at schools

Nevertheless, many schools have already upgraded security. Almost every German school has an alarm system with clear instructions for what to do in case of a shooting. Such systems are also designed to automatically notify the police.

Locks and handles on classroom doors have been replaced with special locking systems. In case of emergency, they can only be opened from the inside. In addition, school building complexes have been laid out according to color codes with the aim of making it easer for police and emergency personnel to get oriented. Schools have also distributed pagers among staff to make communication easier.

Just a few schools have installed video systems. Putting them in place can cost millions, which most German states cannot afford. Only the Berlin district of Neuköln has been able to afford private security guards at 16 schools. Still, they are only "armed" with mobile phones.

"Technical measures will not unconditionally improve security," one teacher said.

Other teachers said only restricting who can get into schools and a good chain of information are effective security methods.

Students mourn the victims of a school shooting in Erfurt in 2002

Students mourn the victims of a school shooting in Erfurt in 2002

Remaining uncertainties

State-level ministries, which are responsible for education policy in Germany, have issued plenty of instructions. But according to state offices of criminal investigation, about 30 percent of schools lack a clear plan for what to do in case of a school shooting. Nevertheless, those offices advise against rehearsing school shooting scenarios, fearing they could actually instigate potential offenders to carry out attacks.

"We receive almost daily requests for help," said Patrick Kane, co-founder of a firm that provides security plans for schools.

The "Security in Schools" initiative also offers technical solutions. Until two years ago, there were barely any such services available on the market. Kane said the most important thing is not causing false alarms, and that in real scenarios, information must quickly reach the right places.

"In many cases, the director still has to decide before the police can intervene," Kane added.

There is no record of how many times per year throughout Germany the alarm is triggered for a potential school shooting. In a 2011 survey of 1,800 schools in northern Germany, those institutions reported 170 cases. Most of them were resolved peacefully.

Author: Wolfgang Dick / als
Editor: Sean Sinico

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