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Finns work for safe schools

published 19 January 2009 updated 19 January 2009

“When I first heard the terrible news from Kauhajoki I was shocked: Not again!” said Erkki Kangasniemi, President of the Trade Union of Education in Finland (OAJ).

He was recalling 23 September 2008: the most brutal day in the history of public education in Finland. A 22-year-old student shot and set fire to 10 victims, including one teacher, at a vocational college in the western town of Kauhajoki. The tragedy was compounded by the fact that it was the second school shooting in less than a year. In November 2007, an 18-year-old student killed eight people and himself at a high school in southern Finland. It was deeply shocking that the two school massacres took place in Finland, a peaceful progressive nation known for the excellence of its education system. Even more disturbing, the second appeared to be a “copycat attack.” In both cases the gunmen posted threatening video clips on YouTube before the shootings. Both used .22-caliber handguns bought from the same store and, in the end, both shot themselves in the head. Kangasniemi was most worried about the students and teachers who had been attacked, but he knew that schools not only in Kauhajoki, but throughout the whole country, also needed support. The OAJ immediately put a message of solidarity and condolence on its website, along with information for schools on coping with crises. The union also organised expert contact people to give advice and advocacy to the members in Kauhajoki. After the first shooting tragedy, the OAJ focused on workplace safety through its local associations and shop stewards. They also worked with the Ministry of Education on a school violence committee which promoted cooperation between authorities and updated the systems for responding to violent incidents. They organised and implemented a training programme on school violence. “We already have a report on violence in the work of teachers, but it does not include murders,” Kangasniemi said in an email. “Further work will have to be done in this field.” He said in future the OAJ will strengthen its demands for smaller class sizes so that teachers at all levels, including vocational education, have the time and ability to advise students and show them that they care. “Teachers need to have time to contact every student as an individual person and to guide his or her learning,” said Kangasniemi. Asked to reflect on the fact that both of the school shooters in Finland posted videos on YouTube, Kangasniemi said that the internet does seem to play a role in these violent events because it allows dysfunctional youth to lead a double life, and to link up with “the internet’s hostile community.” In the wake of the attack, unfortunate rumours and threats of more violence spread through cyberspace. Not surprisingly, some students were afraid to go to school. “Specialists say that fear is normal, but you must not be overcome by fear,” Kangasniemi said. He spoke out about the need for schools to regain a feeling of normality so that students, parents and teachers could begin to heal from the trauma. He also warned that “these acts of violence indicated in their extreme way the deteriorating well-being of children and young people. “ Society needs to focus on measures to avoid such tragedies in the future, he said, without losing sight of the fact that Finland is still a safe and peaceful country, where schools don’t need high fences or security staff. Many Finns have urged more vigilance of internet sites and tighter gun laws, especially since Finland ranks among the top five nations in the world in civilian gun ownership, and people as young as 15 can legally own firearms. Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen has said the government will take measures to restrict access.

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 28, December 2008.