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Swiss Red Cross combats school violence

The school children learn how to deal with conflicts through "hands-on" activities.

(Swiss Red Cross)

A Swiss Red Cross campaign aims to equip teenagers with the skills they need to manage conflict.

The programme, dubbed Chili - or "hot conflict training for heads that keep their cool" - is now in its second year.

Project leader Isabel Uehlinger says they chose the name "Chili" because the hot and spicy pepper is an accurate representation of the programme's twin themes: conflict and aggression.

Conflict comes in many forms and is something everyone faces on a daily basis, argues Uehlinger, but left unattended and misunderstood it can have devastating consequences.

Conflict in schools - most commonly associated with bullying, fighting and name-calling - occasionally has violent and dramatic consequences.

Last April, a recently expelled pupil returned to his school and killed 17 people during a shooting spree in Erfurt, Germany.

The Swiss Red Cross hopes that its Chili campaign can help minimise the risk of such tragedies happening in Switzerland.

"Schools are an impression of our society and I think Erfurt could happen in every Western country," Isabel Uehlinger told swissinfo.

"But Erfurt is a heavy escalation of violence. Hopefully it will remain a rare occurrence. Lots of conflicts are much smaller and those are the ones we want to prevent," she added.

Chili training

A Chili training session runs for between two and five days, but most schools opt for the four-day option at a subsidised cost of SFr2400 ($1,540).

During the course, teenagers take part in different "hands-on" activities designed to improve their communication skills. Participants are encouraged to react to conflicts in a "constructive and understanding" way.

Activities typically include making a photo diary, organising a team Olympiad and acting out various role-play situations.

Uehlinger says one of the most popular activities is a game in which players have to decide who should leave a sinking ship to lighten the load.

Students take on a number of different roles and are then given just 20 minutes to decide who should jump into the water and drown to stop the boat sinking and to save the other passengers' lives.

The Swiss Red Cross hopes that by understanding the point of view of others, teenagers will learn how to interpret conflict from a broader perspective.

Building confidence

But the Chili programme is not just confined to schools. A group called KICK in Burgdorf outside the capital, Bern, helps unemployed school-leavers find jobs by using the principles behind the Red Cross project to build self-esteem.

"The Chili training is a step in the process to give teenagers self-confidence," says KICK spokeswoman, Barbara Siegenthaler.

"They learn how to look at themselves in conflict situations and they realise they are fine as they are," she told swissinfo.

Chili coordinators admit it is difficult to accurately measure how many conflicts have been averted as a direct result of the prevention-based programme, but cites its increased popularity as proof that it is both needed and successful.

"A lot of schools ask for a follow-up and for me that proves that our work is worthwhile," enthuses Uehlinger.

The Swiss Red Cross plans to build on the success of the original programme by rolling out Chili Piccolo for younger children aged over five, Chili Grande for adults and Chili Asyl for asylum seekers - all by 2003.

by Sally Mules

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