Over the past 10 years violence among young people has been rising in Switzerland, and nowhere is the phenomenon more obvious than in the schools. Although Switzerland remains less affected than neighbouring countries such as Germany, Swiss teachers and youth workers are taking the problem very seriously.
A conference in Zurich on violence in schools organised by the Foundation for Education and Tolerance attracted over 400 participants. The Foundation president, Sigi Feigel, said his organisation aimed to get to the root causes of social problems such as violence.
"Our foundation is dedicated to combating discrimination, racism, and of course violence," said Feigel. "And we want to involve the schools because they are suffering these problems at the moment. I agree that parents have an important role to play too, but let's not forget the children of today are the parents of tomorrow."
The issue of violence in schools and how to tackle it has sparked bitter controversy. In canton Aargau, 800 teachers have signed a petition asking for stronger measures to be taken against violent young people, including prison terms for children as young as 14.
Foreigners blamed for violence
And some Swiss parents blame the large number of foreign children in Swiss schools for the increased violence. They would like separate classes for Swiss and foreign children.
But the mayor of Zurich, Josef Estermann, who addressed the conference about the problems in his city, rejected these ideas.
"I don't think prison for 14-year-olds is the answer," he said. "And separating children is certainly not a solution. In Zurich we have 171 different nationalities in our schools - how on earth would you go about separating them?"
In Estermann's view ethnic origin is not the cause of violence. "Well-integrated children are not violent, but children who are not integrated, who come from poor and possibly violent families, are more likely to be violent themselves."
Estermann also pointed out that Switzerland, where 20 per cent of the population is foreign, must address the social issues involved in creating a society which is at the same time multi-cultural and well integrated. And addressing these problems, he said, means accepting some unpleasant facts.
"Statistics show that poverty and unemployment combined with a culture where the father figure is traditionally dominant creates a situation where violence is more frequent," he said.
"Children from poor families who came originally from central and southern Europe are three times more likely to be the victims of violence in the home. And the victims of violence are more likely to be violent themselves."
The conference divided into a series of workshops looking at different ways of tackling violence. Among the main proposals were greater involvement of parents in the school system, and the need to make young foreign people, and their parents, feel included in the Swiss education system, and in Swiss society as a whole.
Another problem was the need to make the route to employment easier for male foreign school leavers. Statistics show that non-Swiss young men find it much more difficult to find a job or an apprenticeship than do native Swiss.
Conchita Neet and Erika Gideon have just published a youth magazine called "Living Together", which describes the experience of living in Switzerland of young people from many ethnic backgrounds. Both Neet and Gideon are convinced that more classroom time needs to be given over to discussing cultural differences.
"We never seem to have enough time for discussing different societies, different cultures," said Neet. "And if we want to raise citizens, we need to discuss this."
The problem, says Gideon, is that many teachers feel pressured by the academic targets they have to reach, and don't feel they can give precious time to a discussion of integration and cultural differences.
"The teachers always tell us they don't have enough time," said Gideon. "But it is really important that they should make the time - we need to open their minds and show them how interesting it can be. It's very important in a democratic country like Switzerland."
Josef Estermann agrees that schools need to do more, but he says they can't be expected to solve the problem of violence alone.
"What's needed is a commitment from the whole of society. Obviously schools have an important role to play in the integration of our young people and in combating violence. But they need the support of politicians - we have to give teachers the means to develop integration programmes.
"It's in everyone's interest: let's not forget that if we reach out to young people and offer them a future, then we have won them for society. But if we push them away, we will have lost them, and society will have problems."
by Imogen Foulkes
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