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Shooting sprees in Germany

July 24, 2012

A newly published study from the University of Cologne has for the first time listed figures for shooting spree threats in German schools. The numbers are frightening - and the schools want action.

Hand shooting revolver
Image: picture alliance/dpa

In the study, made public last week, psychologist Sarah Neuhäuser registered an increase in the incidence of threats to use firearms in schools since the last serious shooting spree by a student in the German town of Winnenden more than three years ago.

The researcher counted 2,600 officially registered threats between 2006 and 2010. Until now, there hasn't been a unified logging of such threats in Germany - each state has its own way of handling the topic.

School officials see an urgent need for action - not only to counter those who fully intend to carry out such a shooting spree, but also address potential copycats.

Support for stressed students

The state of Baden-Württemberg - where the Winnenden shooting took place - is for example drafting a plan for more intensive student support and counseling. The number of psychologists at schools in the state should double in the next three years to a total of 200.

Other states hope to create new violence-prevention positions for school counselors and social workers. State education ministers are seeking the necessary funding, despite the rather tight budgetary situation.

Positive experiences have already been had across the nation with anti-bullying programs. Thuringia and Berlin have focused on special training for teachers and parents, who should work together to recognize and interpret the early signs of intended violent acts.

Such signs were repeatedly present in the run-up to previous shooting sprees in German high schools. In most cases, the acts were carried out by individuals with a propensity for weapons and violent computer games. They were students who were unable to cope with particularly stressful situations. Now, such young men and women should be getting more support.

Masked, armored police and police vehicles
Special force police responded when a student turned up armed at his Bavaria school last MayImage: Reuters

Schools, not fortresses

This approach - of addressing potential perpetrators within the schools while coming to grips with the causes of violence - seems to be working.

After the school shootings in Erfurt, Emsdetten and Winnenden, quite a number of politicians supported the idea of using a wide-range of security technology in schools. A Bundestag committee discussed screening students for weapons as they entered the schools. But currently, there are no metal detector gates at any German schools. A proposal requiring German school students to carry chip cards to get on campus also failed to win support.

Teachers' associations have sought to avoid measures promoting fear and abuse. "We want an atmosphere in which students can feel good," they said.

Build-up at schools

Despite this, there have been changes at many schools. Practically everywhere, alarm systems have been installed to notify the police automatically in case of an emergency. Regular handles and locks on schoolroom doors have been replaced with special closure mechanisms that can be controlled from inside the room.

School buildings have been color coded to help police and emergency workers to find their way around, and staff use pagers for easier communication.

Video surveillance, however, has not yet made it into schools - mainly because such systems are too expensive, with costs reaching into the millions.

The Neukölln district of Berlin is the only one which has managed to finance private security for 16 schools, although the security staff are merely "armed" with mobile phones.

Teachers say that technical measures don't necessarily increase security, but they do agree that access control and a good communication chain are effective.

Schoolgirls cry at steps covered with flowers and candles
An outpouring of grief followed Germany's first large-scale school rampage in Erfurt in 2002Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Continuing insecurity

Despite guidance from the federal education ministry, nearly a third of all schools still don't have a clear concept of how to deal with the worst possible scenario of violence, according to state criminal investigation agencies.

At the same time, the agencies are advising against carrying out drills to practice how to deal with shooting sprees - they don't want potential perpetrators getting any ideas.

Patrick Kane, co-founder of a firm that consults on school security, reported that his company receives nearly daily requests for help from school authorities. There's a Security at Schools initiative focusing on technical solutions. Two years ago, there were hardly any such offerings on the market

Kane says it's most important that false alarms are avoided and that information needs to get to the right person.

"In many cases, it's the school director who has to make a decision before the police can intervene," Kane said.

Where up-to-date security concepts have been implemented so far, they've been able to guarantee that the large number of threats of violence have been resolved peacefully.

Author: Wolfgang Dick / sad
Editor: Michael Lawton