Bullying in berlin schools: investigator in the dark field

Doreen Beer is to develop a Berlin-wide anti-bullying strategy for schools. This strategy is lacking, as is a central record of incidents.

Schools receive a suitcase full of ideas against bullying from the school psychologists in the districts Photo: picture alliance/Britta Pedersen/dpa

Doreen Beer is not someone who likes to push herself into the foreground with her work – you can tell that on Tuesday morning in the press room of the education administration, at her first public appearance since the anti-bullying officer for Berlin schools took up the post in April. "I’m part of a network. I deal with individual cases that come to me, but then I try to look at where we have structural deficits in the school system based on the specific cases," she says.

From individual cases to the big picture – and since you have to turn the big wheel and make your work known, the psychology graduate and trained family therapist had to swap her office for the press room.

The 42-year-old, who has spent the last four years working for an independent youth welfare organization in Marzahn-Hellersdorf, has already identified a few specific weak points in the school system: "My goal is to develop an anti-bullying strategy for all Berlin schools." Beer also wants to "strengthen" the existing crisis teams in schools.

Until now, schools have been required by school law to prescribe for themselves both an anti-bullying strategy and crisis teams staffed by school psychologists, social workers and teachers. Two years ago, Education Senator Sandra Scheeres (SPD) made both compulsory for all schools after repeated incidents of violence at the Spreewald Elementary School in Schoneberg, among others, and the school finally hired a security service on its own.

The senator then came under pressure in January 2019, when there was the suicide of an eleven-year-old at a Reinickendorf elementary school. Even though the principal clarified after initial speculation in the media that the pupil had not been a victim of bullying, Scheeres was under pressure to act.

Crisis teams at all schools

Also because at a subsequent hearing of teachers and student representatives in the Education Committee of the House of Representatives it became clear: Many teachers either do not recognize bullying incidents and if they do, they do not necessarily know how to deal with them – despite the crisis teams that have already been established at many schools for some time. By the way, "all schools" really have them by now, as a spokesman for Scheeres assured on Tuesday.

At that time, after the suicide case at the Reinickendorfer elementary school, Scheeres also announced the position of anti-bullying officer. Beer now wants to tackle exactly the weak points that have been identified: "I am currently trying to see how the crisis teams work, where opportunities have not yet been used and where there are structural deficits," she said at her presentation.

One "deficit" she sees: Many victims of bullying don’t know where to turn. "That’s when parents end up at the school inspector’s office or call me directly," Beer says. And of course it’s good when a case reaches her directly – but that also shows that lower-threshold structures in the school don’t work.

Beer wants to lower the threshold for complaints

Beer says she is thinking, for example, of liaison teachers or school social workers. Schools could also talk about non-violent communication in class councils. But for that, Beer says, "there also has to be a culture of listening in schools, there has to be space for it."

The last few months, Beer says, were probably a special situation anyway because of the Corona lockdown. That’s another reason why she only wanted to present herself publicly now – "so far, the cases that have come to me have hardly been representative," she says. She has received a total of 40 complaints since January 1. April counted, especially parents of elementary school students had contacted her. "That’s when parents felt, for example, that a teacher was withholding classroom materials from their child."

Whether that was bullying? Strictly speaking, bullying means "targeted, recurring violence among students or by teachers against students," Beer says. But "subjective feelings" often do not adhere to scientific definitions.

Dark field studies are lacking

How many cases of bullying are never reported, whether in connection with Corona or not, is still difficult to estimate due to the lack of so-called dark field studies – but it can be assumed that they are not exactly few. On the one hand, Beer also says, cases are not reported because the inhibition threshold towards classmates or even teachers is high.

On the other hand, bullying is "a long, often hidden process" that is only recognized in retrospect – and that reaches them "virtually as by-catch" when the school reports an incident of violence to the education administration. The distinction from a case of discrimination is also sometimes blurred, he said.

Unlike incidents of violence or discrimination, bullying incidents at schools are not centrally recorded. Actually, the red-black predecessor Senate had already decided in 2016 on a reporting obligation for bullying incidents, but that was forgotten again in the current legislature. After the suicide case in 2019, Scheeres said the reporting obligation was "under evaluation."

Beer now wants to first lower the inhibition threshold for complaints, especially for students. The state student committee is now to be brought on board for this: Two students are to be involved in anti-bullying work for 3 to 5 hours a week, says Scheeres’ spokesman. Coming week one wants to sit down if possible the first time together.

And the big anti-bullying strategy for Berlin’s schools? "That’s coming, too," says Beer. Her position is not limited in time.