A widely used approach in Norway to limit youth mob culture and violence has long been exported. Now look for it in Germany, following the July 22 attack in Munich by a teenaged victim of bullying.
MUNICH —The 18-year-old had just shot dead nine people and taken refugee in a parking garage, when a man from his balcony nearby started insulting and cursing at him. What did the teenaged gunman do in this extreme situation, with the police hunting him down? He replied, justifying his actions by saying he had been mobbed in school "for seven years." As if that could somehow explain or excuse his terrible act.
In the wake of the July 22 mass shooting in Munich, new questions have arisen about mobbing and bullying of teens. Although harassment and abuse don't make a murderer, there clearly is a connection between mobbing (both victims and perpetrators) and anti-social behavior. Juvenile bullies are twice as violent as others, while victims are more likely to suffer from clinical depression.
German schools had been late in confronting the problem of bullying. But now there's a major project to implement the Olweus bullying prevention method, developed in the 1980s in Norway, in 20 schools across Germany. Officials at Olweus, which was devised by the Norwegian psychologist Dan Olweus, say that incidents of mobbing and bullying drop by 70% wherever it is applied.
"Happy students don't run amok," says Michael Kaess, medical director of the Department of Childhood and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychotherapy in the Heidelberg University Hospital in central Germany.
German scientists will research the effects in the schools where the program is implement to see if long-term consequences like depression, anxiety disorder, suicide risks or the propensity for people to resort to crime can be minimized.
[rebelmouse-image 27090408 alt="""" original_size="1024x679" expand=1]
Playground bully — Photo: Thomas Ricker
According to anonymous surveys, one out of four students is effecting by bullying, as a victim, an offender or both. "That's 25 girls and boys out of 100 students, who suffer from serious repercussions," says Ulrike Reinhardt-Klein, representative of the prevention program of the department of culture of Baden-Württemberg.
Olweus' approach tends to avoid sanctions, focusing instead on a "climate change."
"The school has to develop an attitude," says Reinhardt-Klein. "It is shared conviction that each student has the right to feel safe. The core are clear rules, for all, for example: We will not bully other students. We will try to help students who are being bullied."
The process is meant to involve all: students, teachers, parents, the school secretary, the janitor. Each person is meant to become something of an expert in the phenomenon of bullying and mobbing, with a particular focus on what otherwise might be considered unconcerned onlookers.
Those observing the scenes of bullying occupy, according to Dan Olweus, a central function: It's the laughter and cheering that give the culprit the attention and acknowledgment that tends to motivate him. "That's where you can step in," says the child-psychiatrist Kaess. "If the mobbing is not considered cool among peers anymore, it often stops by itself."
What sounds simple, however, requires a major effort for any school. Teachers need to be trained and work together as a group, detailed conferences are needed, students must be involved all along the way.
[rebelmouse-image 27090409 alt="""" original_size="468x355" expand=1]
Bully in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917) — Source: Wikimedia Commons
Ideally, regular talks and role playing should be held in class, and it is strongly recommended to involve the parents. Urgent cases of alleged bullying must be discussed individually with the concerned students and parents, but never in class.
What's particularly important is the atmosphere between lessons, for it's during the breaks where most of the mobbing happens. It's important to have a clear line that is followed consistently, says Reinhardt-Klein: Students who show disrespectful behavior towards other students must be confronted immediately.
All of this demands a lot of the concerned parties. This may be why the program has not been widely applied in Germany, even though the European Commission recommended its introduction in 2008. But nothing can be expected to go much further without adding additional staffing in schools.