Across the Atlantic, Europeans Take Different Approach to School Safety

By Darcia Harris Bowman — May 22, 2002 6 min read
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For Americans living in the shadow of the Columbine High School massacre, the details of the deadly school shooting in Germany last month sounded eerily familiar.

A 19-year-old, dressed in black and armed to the teeth, stormed through Gutenberg High School in the eastern German city of Erfurt, shooting teachers and sending students fleeing for cover. The teenager claimed 16 lives before he killed himself, making his rampage Germany’s bloodiest mass murder since World War II and the world’s deadliest school shooting since the 15 deaths at Colorado’s Columbine High in April 1999.

The similarities between the two shootings immediately raised public concerns that the kind of lethal violence that has hit suburban schools throughout the United States over the past decade might be emerging in Europe. But in the weeks since the April 26 incident at Gutenberg High, many Germans and other Europeans have rejected that fear.

Many have also dismissed a common U.S. response to such violence: transforming schools into high-security zones.

“Violence in German schools is not a problem to the degree it is in the United States,” said Hinrich J. Thoelken, a spokesman for the German Embassy in Washington. “Before this shooting, nothing of this kind had ever taken place in Germany. So, no, I don’t expect to see backpack searches, metal detectors, a greater [police] presence in schools, or anything of that nature.”

But that will last only as long as the Gutenberg shooting remains an anomaly for European schools, predicted Stephen R. Sroka, an assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, who has worked with European educators on school violence issues.

“I do think these countries believe they are different from America because they don’t have the intensity of the problem we have, so they won’t go to such extreme measures yet,” Mr. Sroka said. “But if they get a couple more of these [school shootings], that will change. With school violence, perception becomes reality.”

Even before the Gutenberg High incident, some European countries were already moving toward tighter school security and greater preventive measures.

In France, more than 6,000 serious incidents of violence in secondary schools in the 1998-99 academic year—and increasingly fearful educators—prompted a host of government efforts to make schools safer. Those included the creation of a computer program and on-site observation units in schools to track violence as it occurs, plus the hiring of thousands of new staff aides, supervisors, doctors, nurses, and social workers for schools.

Throughout the United Kingdom, primary schools quickly employed new security measures following a 1996 shooting at an elementary school in Dunblane, Scotland, where an adult gunman killed 16 children, a teacher, and himself. Now, staff members at larger schools with multiple entries typically lock everything but the main entrances to buildings; students, employees, and visitors are screened through intercom systems before being granted access to schools.

Security cameras that have been common in other public spaces in the U.K., such as subways and sports stadiums, are turning up in schools as well, experts there say.

And England’s education secretary announced a proposal last month to station police in the country’s roughest schools as part of an effort to crack down on truancy, which government statistics show contributes to a large percentage of juvenile crime.

School Security Debates

Whether such measures are necessary or sound remains a point of debate, said Joseph Elliott, an associate dean of research at the University of Sunderland in England and a professor of educational psychology.

“If a psycho walks in once every five years, does it justify the school security we have now?” he said. “Is it worth that investment? Maybe it is if it makes people feel more secure.”

Perhaps of greater value, Mr. Elliott suggested, are projects like one he’s evaluating that is aimed at raising youngsters’ comfort level with police by basing community officers in elementary schools.

In Northern Ireland, schools have the same security-locked doors common in British schools. They also offer counseling services for troubled students in an attempt to make schools safer. Many of the youngsters there are dealing with problems similar to those experienced by numerous American children: parental divorces, bereavement, poverty.

But Northern Ireland is also struggling to recover from 30 years of bloody civil strife, a conflict that has claimed the lives of teachers, bus drivers, and students. Policymakers and educators are just beginning to discuss what role schools should play in the healing process, said Tony Gallagher, a professor of education at Queen’s University Graduate School of Education in Belfast.

“Most, but not all schools, have tended to avoid dealing with these types of incidents or providing young people with opportunities to discuss the incidents or their feelings about them,” Mr. Gallagher said of the violence in Northern Ireland.

However, experts in the United Kingdom predicted that metal detectors and armed security officers were probably not in the cards for their schools.

“Despite the shocking incident [at Gutenberg High School], I do not think there is any widespread sense that U.S.-style responses in schools are needed here,” Mr. Gallagher said.

In French schools, it was the severity of the violence that spiked in the second half of the past decade rather than the number of aggressors, according to officials with the French Embassy in Washington. But possession of weapons on school property—including guns and knives—was still virtually unheard of, accounting for less than 2 percent of the serious incidents at secondary schools in France in 1998-99.

As a result, French Embassy officials said, the country’s policymakers and educators have tended to look more broadly at the root causes of youth violence, rather than focusing on school-based prevention alone.

Access to Guns

For now, many Europeans continue to view school shootings—and gun violence in general—as a distinctly American phenomenon. That attitude stems primarily from the fact that countries like Britain, France, and Germany have far stricter controls on firearms than the United States, making the gun-owning citizen the exception rather than the rule.

Firearm-death rates are a telling indicator of that difference. In 1998, there were more than 14 firearm deaths per 100,000 people in the United States. There were fewer than six in France that same year, fewer than two in Germany, and less than 1 per 100,000 in England. “We just don’t have the access to guns that Americans have,” Mr. Elliott of the University of Sunderland said. “Guns are not part of the culture here, and restrictions are tough.”

Germany was already considering tougher gun laws before the Gutenberg High shooting. After the massacre, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and state governors reached a consensus to raise the minimum age for buying guns from 18 to at least 21. The gunman, Robert Steinhaeuser, was a member of a local sport- shooting club and had permits for the guns he used to shoot teachers and fellow students.

Still, weapons are not expected to be the focus of any school-based proposals in the immediate future, German officials said.

Rather than metal detectors and armed security officers in schools, Mr. Thoelken of the German Embassy said, German citizens and policymakers are far more likely to support placing greater numbers of psychologists in schools and creating programs to improve relationships between students and teachers.

That approach would be in keeping with the differences between United States and European domestic policymaking, according to one American expert.

“The reason we turn to metal detectors and student profiling is because we can’t get at the deeper stuff, but the Europeans can,” said Doriane Lambelot Coleman, the author of a new book, Fixing Columbine: The Challenge to American Liberalism. “Europeans may look at metal detectors, but it’s so clearly a Band-Aid. They just do a much better job taking care of their children.”

Coverage of international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2002 edition of Education Week as Across the Atlantic, Europeans Take Different Approach to School Safety


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