BERLIN — Classmates told Oskar* they were going to drug and kill him, then leave his body in the woods.
These were 11-year-olds talking during a class trip last June, all sitting on their beds in the dorm of the hostel at the time. Oskar was among them and even thought the fantastical scenario was funny at the beginning. But it soon became more concrete, with his peers describing how wild animals would eat him or that they would burn him in the adjacent forest.
Oskar told his parents, who thought the school wasn't doing enough and decided to press charges against their son's tormentors. The school responded by suspending the two suspected leaders of this little tour de farce. What were these kids possibly thinking? Were they truly sick children with a violent streak, or were they just engaging in very dark ideas as a group, parroting something they had seen in a scary movie?
We'll never know because school officials never asked them. The teacher responsible for the class sent an email around to the parents saying that Oskar had received serious threats, that his parents had pressed charges against the perpetrators and that the school would whole-heartedly support them. No one asked the 11-year-olds who made the threat to tell their side of the story, and they were swiftly suspended.
Oskar remained an outsider, and his parents were forced to send him to another school the following year.
This case may be an extreme one, but it's not wholly unique.
At play was incompetence, not education. Maybe Oskar's tormenters were dangerous children in early bloom, but perhaps it was all a group-driven fantasy whose context would have mitigated the sense of threat, if the adults had taken the time to investigate. What the case demonstrates is that teachers often capitulate too easily in the face of difficulty.
Their fear of violence in school has become so pronounced that it paralyzes them as soon as they spot the first signs of it. Instead of utilizing their pedagogical skills, devoting themselves to and guiding these children about how to express their feelings appropriately, they default to disciplinary measures such as suspension and/or getting the police and local prosecutor involved. The idea is to rid themselves of the possibly dangerous students before something worse happens.
"Rash decisions are made much too often," says Kristin Werschnitzke, a teacher at a school in Brandenburg. "Everyone should get together and take the time to analyze what exactly happened. As a teacher nowadays, you are not given the opportunity to talk to the student and work out what actually happened."
Criminalizing what's normal
It seems that teachers and parents have lost all sense of what level of violence and nastiness is normal among children, and what needs to be changed. "What was seen as perfectly normal 10 years ago is now often and very quickly criminalized," says Nele McElvany, head of the Institute for School Development Research in Dortmund.
The fact is, children should be allowed to screw up. How else are they going to discover where the boundaries between right and wrong lie? Nils Christie, a Norwegian sociologist who passed away last year, was adamant that children be allowed to have conflict. "Don't take it away," he urged.
Children and adolescents need to learn how to fight, just as they need to make up afterwards to heal whatever psychological damage the conflict caused. Having an outside party settle a conflict is a disservice to both the victim and the aggressor. "The child does not become a stronger person when parents, police officers or teachers take care of a situation," says Berlin-based criminologist and teacher Lydia Seus. "The child remains a victim who always needs help from others."
It also should be said that children and adolescents are actually less violent now than in the past. Most are raised without violence, and children learn to settle conflicts without physical means as early as kindergarten. There are, of course, always a few black sheep at school. But overall, adolescent violence has decreased by 15% in the last 10 years. In the meantime, the willingness to press charges against adolescent perpetrators has risen by 12%, according to researchers of the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony (KFN).
Missing the chance to learn lessons
"There rarely are cases of violence that cannot be solved," says the KFN's Christian Pfeiffer. "And yet you have people from kindergarten on up who completely overreact to very minor scuffles."
To determine the necessary measures that need to be taken in these cases, you need pedagogical competence. A properly trained teacher is invaluable in these situations. But teachers often complain that they lack the necessary training.
In these cases, a clear system of rules and regulations at schools, designed by both teachers and students, could be the solution, says Klaus Hurrelmann from the Hertie School of Governance, a private graduate school offering degrees in governance and political science.
Discussing and deciding on boundaries through consensus also promotes ethical awareness, as the students learn what is important and right, and the punishments are understandable for everyone involved. The victim is enabled by being able to demand punishment. But the perpetrator also benefits: He or she understands the mistake and has a clear means of making amends. This way too the aggressor isn't stigmatized as simply a "bad person," which only leads to isolation, further frustration and more aggression.
Relationships and reliable values are the most important pillars of a child's development for a stable and psychologically healthy personality. The school also must provide a strong value and relationship system. Children need structure and are enabled to study best within such sets of rules and regulations. Consequently, they feel most comfortable and secure at schools that provide these.
Society must do its part by placing more trust in its teachers, by enabling them to use their educative skills with confidence, by providing school psychologists to assist them, by allowing them the time to settle conflicts during school hours, and by training them so that they can better manage the pressures parents put on them.
We also have to become better acquainted with the realities of life for students, and approach these kinds of conflicts with more sensitivity. We need to engage children, ask them questions, try to understand their motives. Most importantly, we need to look at conflict as an opportunity rather than a threat. It takes an effort. But considering what's at stake — nothing less than the value of education — it's worth it.
*Not his real name.