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France

Revenge attacks, budget cuts fuel a surge in school violence

Text by Amara MAKHOUL

Latest update : 2010-02-17

After a series of attacks at high schools that have included a fatal stabbing and the use of teargas grenades, three teachers tell FRANCE 24 about daily life within the culture of violence that reigns at some of the nation’s schools.

With their faces hidden by hoods and scarves, six people entered the gymnasium of the Guillaume Apollinaire high school in the Paris suburb of Thiais on Monday to launch teargas grenades at the students before attacking and wounding a 17-year-old with a box cutter. It was a revenge attack, say sources close to the investigation.

Education Minister Luc Chatel expressed outrage at the incident, calling it “intolerable that the settling of scores took place during school time”. He announced that a summit on the state of security in French schools would he held at the beginning of April.
 
Monday’s attack occurred just weeks after another incident, at the Adolphe Chérioux high school in Vitry-sur-Seine, when seven people with no ties to the school wounded a 14-year-old in a knife attack. In January, an 18-year-old pupil at Darius-Milhaud high school died after being stabbed by a fellow student.  
 
A thousand teachers from the Créteil education authority demonstrated in Paris on Tuesday against the surge in violence in the city’s public schools. Three teachers who are employed at some of the capital’s high-risk schools spoke to FRANCE 24 about the daily difficulties they are facing.
 
 
‘Rivalries from the housing projects are being exported to the high schools’
Catherine Liber, teacher of modern literature at the Guillaume Apollinaire high school in the Paris suburb of Thiais.
 
“This high school is not considered particularly difficult, and before it was even considered calm. But this has been less true for some time,” Liber says. While her school has not experienced any serious incidents such as the knife attack at Chérioux, she says, there is a feeling of decrepitude that permeates the school. The building is covered in gaffiti, the electricity lines in the car park are down and people with no school affiliation are often seen roaming the grounds.
 
The 17-year-old who was tear-gassed and attacked in the gym was one of her students. “I questioned other pupils to try to understand what happened, and they said it was the settling of a score between rival gangs of a neighbouring housing project, which are pitched battles,” she says. “The rivalries from the projects are being exported to the public schools.”
 
Liber says she and her colleagues asked the school to tackle the problem, although it is not normally something the school would be able to handle on its own. When no changes were forthcoming, she and her colleagues decided to boycott teaching their classes.
 
“We demanded better, calmer, working conditions,” she says. “At the moment, you don't feel safe at the school. There must be more supervisors − we only have six [positions] for 1,500 students.”
 
 
‘The schools need more resources’
Laurent Escure, a teacher in Toulouse-Montmirail. 
 
“Above all, it should be remembered that classrooms are not lawless zones,” says Laurent Escure, a teacher in Toulouse-Montmirail and a member of a union of primary school teachers. “On a day-to-day basis, verbal violence is common,” he says. “The atmosphere is tense and serious incidents occur frequently.”
 
But the teachers themselves share some of the blame, according to Escure. “You need to know how to guide a classroom, and you must be in good form,” he says, noting that the psychological wear on teachers at many schools is obvious.
 
Those high schools considered high-risk need additional resources, he says. In troubled areas, “you really notice the lack of teachers’ assistants and the 50,000 other positions that the government has eliminated over the past four years”, he says. In places where adults are absent − such as hallways and parts of the courtyard − the situation quickly degenerates into aggression or even just dangerous play.
 
“Even when they are not directly involved, people see and live the violence,” says Escure. “And this violence is difficult to purge when recreation time is over.”  
 
Escure says it is time for the minister of education to make a move. “[Chatel] has the power to put an end to the conflict with the teachers in the suburbs, and especially in Vitry-sur-Seine,” he says. “He must reinstate the positions that they are demanding.” 
 
 
‘Students bring violence from outside into the classroom’
Elodie*, a teacher at a high school in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis.
 
“Violence is ubiquitous, day and night,” Elodie says simply. “It is essentially verbal, but it also manifests as a permanent din, as constant scuffles in the corridors and in physical brawls. Anywhere can become a place of conflict.”
 
She says that confiscating a mobile phone or a baseball cap − things that teachers are obliged to do many times each day − can, with certain students, result in insults or abuse being hurled at the teacher. The student can refuse to hand over the object or refuse to report to his or her educational advisor.
 
“That becomes an impasse that paralyses the whole class,” she says.
 
Since the elimination of so many teaching and administrative positions, she says things have got worse. The beginning of the school year was marked by a wave of violence right outside the building, including some serious beatings. Students set fire to garbage bins and fights were taking place in the hallways because there were simply not enough supervisors to go around, Elodie says. And those that the school has cannot be everywhere at once. In the hallways, she says, the students are on their own.  
 
To deal with the upswing in violent incidents, a police force was stationed outside the school for a while.
 
“All of this creates a very tense environment at the school,” Elodie says. “The students bring the violence from outside into the classroom.”
 
 
 
* Name has been changed

 

Date created : 2010-02-17

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