Violence in the schools has repeatedly been a subject that has aroused the concern of the German public. Because of the country’s federalist structure, however, there are no nationwide programs for combating school violence. Yet at the regional level there is plenty going on. One thing is clear: only by dealing openly with conflicts can we get a grip on the problem.
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Anna sits weeping in a corner of the schoolyard of the Captain from Köpenick Elementary School in Berlin. Once again her classmates have refused to let her play with them. Two peer mediators in yellow fluro vests moderate: as neutral parties, these pupils with mediation training moderate a discussion in which both sides explain their points of view and describe their feelings. Anna says that the others always run away from her or tell her she should go away. The other girls feel pressured by Anna and would rather play by themselves. The peer mediators encourage both sides to express their wishes. The goal is that those involved in the quarrel should themselves find a solution and implement it. It is then more likely that they will hold to the agreement. They agree that in the next break Anna may play with them. The girls want to try to find a role for her in their games. Next week the peer mediators again have a date to talk with Anna and the others. Then they will evaluate what has changed since the mediation.
The Berlin peer mediation model
The peer mediators have been walking about the playground of the Köpenick School during every break since October 2011. They trained for a year in how to moderate conflicts. Now they are able to recognize violent situations in their early stages and know how to handle them. They protect and bolster the victim and help the quarrelling parties find a solution to the conflict. Ortrud Hagedorn developed and introduced the Berlin peer mediation model in 1992. “At that time the media often reported about increasing violence in the schools”, she says, explaining her motive. “The reports made both parents and young people fearful. The young wanted to do something against violence themselves instead of remaining stuck in fear.”
This often involves more difficult cases than that of Anna. In the 2010/2011 school year, Berlin schools reported 1,468 emergencies and instances of violence, seven percent less than in the previous year. The statistic is based on the current violence prevention report of the Berlin Senate Administration for Education, Youth and Science.
Invisible violence is the main problem
Violence is still a ubiquitous subject in schools in Germany. “Children and young people harm each other through devaluation, encroachment on needs, damage and destruction of property and physical attacks”, says Ortrud Hagedorn. Public perception of this is dominated by extreme cases of open violence such as killing sprees. The media report these in detail. But in everyday life it is above all the subtle forms of violence such as threats, exclusion and bullying that make difficult the lives and education of school children. These silent forms of violence escape the direct observation of adults. At the same time, in the age of the Internet the space in which children are excluded and verbally attacked has been extended. Cyber-bullying has become a major problem. Neither teachers nor parents are always aware of what children do online.
“The constructive handling of conflicts is unfortunately not a subject taught in the classroom”, says Hagedorn. Instead, there is a growing pressure to perform on both teachers and pupils, leaving hardly any time to deal with interpersonal issues. “Lots of pressure and other stressful experiences increase the risk of conflicts”, says Bastian Hartwig of the special violence and crisis team of the Regional Counseling and Support Center (Regionales Beratungs- und Unterstützungszentrums / ReBUZ) in Bremen. “In addition to experiences at school, the home environment and peer groups are significant for the emergence of violence”. The team from the ReBUZ counsels teachers, pupils and families in conflict and crisis situations. They intervene and act as a go-between for the people concerned and the relevant agencies that can provide further assistance. A major emphasis of the ReBUZ is to sensitize teachers to the problems. “Many forms of violence aren’t even open”, says Hartwig, “they work quietly and under cover.”
No national plan, but many projects
According to the German Basic Law, the 16 federal states are each responsible for its educational policy. There are therefore no nationwide, overarching initiatives or concepts against violence in the schools or an overview of the actual level of violence. On the other hand, through this federalist structure many valuable ideas have emerged at the state level. Mediators are one approach. Other schools have organized music festivals (“Music against Violence” at the Mücke Comprehensive School in Hesse), social skills training (“Learning Playfully How to Quarrel” in North-Rhine Westphalia) or sent an exhibition of school children’s pictures on tour, as did the 1992 initiative launched by the Ludwigshafen graphic artist Silvia Izi entitled “Who If Not Us?”.
There are also institutions in other federal states such as the ReBUZ, which provides help and networks all the important actors with each other. Likewise counseling centers that provide support for the victims of school violence and their parents. And telephone numbers that the children involved can call. Bastian Hartwig of the ReBUZ in Bremen sums up a point on which all those concerned with the subject of violence in the schools agree: “You have to take a close look. Prevention, counseling, intervention and follow-up are necessary. Only when conflicts are recognized, and have space in which they can be openly and peacefully resolved, can we effectively reduce violence in the schools”.