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Erfurt murders prompt soul-searching in Switzerland

A former student was responsible for the Erfurt shootings that left 13 teachers dead

(Keystone Archive)

A week after a student shot dead 16 people in a German school, Swiss teachers are seeking new measures to prevent violence in schools.

Swiss cantonal education directors said they were considering additional measures to defuse violence among pupils.

The statement was in response to last Friday's shootings at Gutenburg Gymnasium in the German town of Erfurt, where a former school pupil gunned down 13 teachers, two students and a policeman before committing suicide.

The incident has sparked much soul-searching across Europe, with teachers calling for more support to deal with potentially violent students.

Teachers worried

"Teachers are worried about violence in Swiss schools," Eric Räz, a headmaster at Belp secondary school near Bern, told swissinfo.

He said they were concerned both about violent students and the fact that security at schools is minimal, meaning that people can easily enter the premises.

Although violence in Swiss schools is nowhere near as bad as in the United States, educationalists say incidents are becoming more serious.

"The form of violence has changed. If there is violence, it's more dangerous than it was before," said Hans Ullrich Stöckling, education director for canton St Gallen, and head of Switzerland's national association of cantonal education directors.

Canton St Gallen has its own experiences of violence schools. Three years ago, the father of a pupil killed a local teacher and not long after, in a separate incident, one 6th grade pupil killed another.

Helpline for teachers

In response to those incidents the canton established a 24-hour helpline for teachers who want advice about potentially violent situations. "We have seen that teachers were very glad to have this possibility as soon as problems arose," Stöckling said.

But helpines for teachers are not going to solve the problem of violent students. Allan Guggenbühl, a child psychologist who specialises in aggression in schools says pupils too need advice.

"What we increasingly find is that there is a lot of anger and frustration among certain students. Not the majority who are actually satisfied with school, but there is a minority of students who are tremendously angered by what is happening in schools," he said.

Trouble shooters

Belp school employs a local priest who students can turn to when feeling aggressive or facing difficulties. Proposals for this type of mentor to be employed permanently as a conflict manager have been floated.

However, Guggenbühl and Stöckling are agreed that ultimately it is the teacher who is best placed to hear and deal with students' issues.

"My impression is that the teachers are the people who students with problems turn to because it's teachers who know the students best, and they are usually the people to whom the students relate," Guggenbühl told swissinfo.

Stöckling believes that more needs to be done to help teachers become mentors to their students. At the moment, he says, they have little possibility to establish real contact with pupils.

"Teachers are under pressure and if they see 60 to 100 students every week, they don't manage to develop an individual relationship."

If teachers were responsible for 30 or 50 students, Guggenbühl suggests, they would be much more likely to develop a relationship with a minority that might be disturbed.

Swiss state education officials are now taking action to look at how best to tackle issues students may have at school before the students themselves take potentially deadly action.

The experts say teachers need support, rather than sensational headlines, in order to do that.

by Imogen Foulkes and Samantha Tonkin

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