School sheriffs keep eye on problem pupils in Berlin
Many like the idea but others say it helps promote negative images of schools.
It did not take the children long to get used to the unfamiliar sight of security guards taking up position outside their schools in one of Berlin's problem areas.
"Have you got a pistol with you," little Hussein asked the two men wearing dark blue uniforms who stood guard outside his school in the immigrant-dominated suburb of Neukoelln.
The older of the two shook his head, eliciting a smile from the youngster as he quickly walked passed the men to join his friends waiting for him inside the schoolyard.
Since December, 20 "school sheriffs" employed by a private security firm have been keeping an eye on children at 13 Neukoelln schools in the first project of its kind in Germany.
Their task is to stop non-pupils from entering the school grounds and causing trouble, following 56 violent incidents in the suburb's 76 schools during the school year that ended in July.
The first day went very well, according to Klaus Huebner, who manages the project on behalf of the Bielefeld-based security firm Germania.
"Things were quiet, as we expected they would be," he said. "There was one harmless incident when we had to turn back a boy who tried to get into a school where he wasn't a pupil."
The guards are on duty from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Hueber said that in some schools they are required to check the pupils' identity cards or bags, but in others they rely only on facial recognition.
"We already had the backing of parents and teachers," he said. "But the pupils feel safer now that the guards are there."
The project is the brainchild of Neukoelln Mayor Heinz Buschkowsky, who took the decision to hire a private security firm after a particularly violent incident earlier this year.
A 54-year-old male teacher at the Roentgen Secondary School was beaten up by a 17-year-old Serbian-born youth who surfaced at the school, demanding to see his ex-girlfriend.
Ordered to leave the premises, the youngster became aggressive, punching and kicking the teacher to the ground in the schoolyard, before being overpowered by pupils.
"This step is unavoidable," said the mayor. "Without this we can no longer guarantee parents the protection and safety of their children."
Buschkowsky made 200,000 euros ($290,000) available for the project until the end of the school year in July 2008. Another 10 schools have expressed interest in joining the scheme next year.
But the idea is not popular with everyone. Berlin's Interior Senator Ehrhart Koerting, like the mayor a member of the left-of-center Social Democratic Party (SPD), warned of "paramilitary units" being posted outside schools.
Koerting said he did not believe guards were necessary "because police data has shown that schools are not flashpoints of violence, particularly among young people."
While this might be the case, there have been a series of incidents at schools, which have alarmed both parents and teachers in Neukoelln.
In March last year, the Ruetli School, dominated by Arab and Turkish juvenile, made international headlines when a teacher published a letter claiming conditions at the school had become so bad that it should be closed down.
She felt teachers had lost all authority and were now so afraid that they only entered classrooms with a mobile phone so they could call for help in an emergency. As a result of her plea for help, city authorities installed a new rector who made sweeping changes.
No longer negative headlines
School psychologists were called in to "help" problem pupils, especially Arab males, some of whom refused to respect the authority of women teachers.
Today, the Ruetli School no longer makes negative headlines, with pupils evidently happy in the "new" environment.
Paradoxically, that might change because of the new security measures.
"We'll be getting our old image back now that the security guards are here," one 12-year-old pupil told reporters.
DPA with Expatica