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  • Alina Stehle&Henrike Laing

Rising Crime Rates in Dutch Secondary Schools: Are Students Still Safe?

As youth crime increases at schools in the Netherlands, students are beginning to feel unsafe. To combat the crime, discussions are rising whether schools need to step up and work with external actors to address the growing threat.

Secondary schools all around the Netherlands face increasing crime. ©Alina Stehle

"The world is getting tougher in the last years and the schools are a mirror of what happens in the world" (James Serra, teacher and educator for international diploma)

Youth crime and violence is a long-standing issue in Groningen. Last year, the municipality, police, prosecutor's office, and social agencies launched a month-long mission against a gang of 14 youths involved in weapons, drugs, theft, abuse, and violence. The local newspaper Dagblad van het Noorden reported extensively on the coordinated efforts, including home visits, internships, and therapy for the teenagers, which led to the gang disbanding and the case closing after around nine months.

Increasing crime at Dutch secondary schools

But not only around the streets youth violence and crime are a problem, it hast also transferred to schools all around the Netherlands. The newest numbers of the Onderwijsinspectie Nederland, the Dutch supervisory authority for education, show that the amount of reported crimes at Dutch secondary schools has nearly doubled over the last two years. While in 2020/2021 there were 391 incidents, in 2022/2023 already 772 cases were reported.

The type of crime varies in secondary schools, as the following graphic shows. Psychological violence is most prevalent, but sexual harassment and physical violence are also widespread among students.

Not only are there significantly more cases of violence, but the numbers also show the impact on students' sense of safety. Over the past two years, the number of reported cases of social or physical insecurity has tripled, as the chart below shows. Physical unsafety describes a case when, for example, weapons or drugs enter the school with the student and this creates a sense of fear and threat for students. Social safety includes criminal exploitation, intimidation and feelings of fear that create a socially unsafe climate in the classroom and schoolyard.

"Insecurity is completely unacceptable"

This worrying trend has also reached the country's government. Fabian Paardekooper, spokesperson of the Dutch the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, told The Groninger on request: "Insecurity is completely unacceptable, especially in schools." According to him, the rise of violence and aggression in education is part of a broader social trend that is recognizable in society.

As Paardekooper says, the government is taking this development in schools very seriously and is constantly working to improve the situation. In addition to the schools, parents and municipalities must also take responsibility in order to counteract the problem, he urges.

Rising youth violence in Groningen schools

In recent years, the region of Groningen has also experienced a number of criminal incidents at schools that have shocked the public and filled the news pages.

In 2021, a stabbing took place at the Alfa College between two classmates during a lunch break. RTV Noord reported at the time that the two boys didn't get along very well, and during a lunch break, an argument between the two escalated to such an extent that a 19-year-old student ended up stabbing his 17-year-old classmate. Apparently, the attacker had the 8-inch knife with him at school and therefore it was within easy reach when the situation heated up.

Fights with knives on schoolyards in Groningen are rather rare, but the fact that these items are increasingly being taken into schools is widely known. For example, the police has communicated in the past that searches are being carried out at schools around Groningen to detect possible weapons. The authorities say that these are preventive measures to avoid violent crime in schools. Next to knives, a fake pistol has been found in the lockers of a student.

Headlines from Dutch newspapers dealing with crime incidents happening at schools in Groningen. ©Alina Stehle, Henrike Laing

Working as a teacher and educator for international diplomas in the Netherlands, James Serra says to The Groninger that he doesn’t observe many cases of crime at schools around Groningen. “Sometimes you have an incident of dealing soft drugs, but this doesn’t happen a lot of times,” he clarifies. Serra adds that it has become much easier to report cases of crime, which might also explain the observed increase of incidents in the Netherlands.

"They have knives but they don't use them if they fight"

To find out if teenagers in Groningen still feel safe at their secondary schools and what challenges they face, The Groninger talked to students from Stadslyceum and Praedinius Gymnasium in Groningen.

What the conversations show is a mixed picture. Some of the local teenagers see a problem with violence and crimes at their schools, others do not. There also seem to be differences across the city, the students believe.

But it is clear from the conversations with the teenagers that there is little surprise that according to the numbers from the Onderwijsinspecite Nederland there is more violence in schools in their country. And most of them have already come into contact with violence themselves. Having a knife in the pocket when going to school? Not too surprising for most teenagers. However, all of them agree that safety at school is important to create a safe learning environment. And at this point, not all of the students felt safe, they say.

The role of teachers in ensuring safety at schools

Rotterdam mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb recently talked in the newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad about youth crime in his city and how difficult it is to exit criminal circles: “Boiling up a job or wanting to stop means a bullet in the head and otherwise your mother or sister will be threatened.” According to Aboutaleb, an increasing number of bombs have been found on the doors of those who want to leave the criminal network. Preventing young people from joining these networks or helping them to leave early is a growing challenge, not just in Rotterdam. Schools across the country are looking to the authorities for guidance on how to respond to these issues.

For that cause the WIJschool program was invented that enables teachers to scan the vulnerabilities of a class, the school or a student. The system helps teachers look more consciously at what is going on and thus identify worrying behavior earlier. The teacher is then provided with methods to tackle a problem or to discuss it. 

That teachers play a crucial role in fostering a safe environment in schools is also the guiding principle of the Dutch foundation School & Veiligheid. The organization argues that by empowering students and focusing on their strengths and capacities, teachers can significantly contribute to students' identity development. They say that dealing with crime at schools, awareness and prevention are key components of a teacher’s responsibility, and teachers must address and discuss conflicts to prevent them from reoccurring. 

According to Serra, it is not the role of the teachers to watch the students and to deal with heavy incidents of crime. "Teachers also need a break and simply don't have the time for several hours of conversations with students and their parents." He believes that you can't expect from teachers to take those extra tasks because they have neither the knowledge nor the time to deal with it. In those instances social workers or the police need to talk to the students to find out the origin of the problem and to tackle it together with the student. "Students become more open in the last years to talk about their feelings and the things they struggle with," he says. This development should be used by study coaches to tackle the origins of the problem.

"What happens right now should not be normalized"

Sylvia Schinkel, a prospective teacher, told us that the rise in crime is unacceptable and that it is essential to fight it.

She believes that the increase of crime is connected to several factors like social media, the social background but also Covid plays an important role.

Teacher and educator James Serra agrees about the important influence of Covid and the role of social media. He believes that the reason for increasing aggression at schools is that violence is way more normalized through films but also through social media. Uploading a video of a fight in school became normalized and gives the children more attention through likes and can even be the reason for students to initiate a fight, he explains. “They post it on social media, experience the violence on the screen and copy this behavior,” Serra says.

Prospective teacher calls for more training to combat violence

We also spoke to Dana Schwall who is an upcoming teacher as well. During one of her internships she has experienced violence in the classroom and didn’t feel prepared for a situation like that.

Schwall believes the increase of crime and the ways of dealing with it need to be taken more into account during her studies.

To deal with violence at schools, she believes that cooperation between social workers, the police and teachers is crucial to ensure a safer environment and tackle the increase of crime.

Especially social workers can be seen as influential part of the whole process as they have the expertise skills to deal with conflicts and how to approach young people. Further, they act as neutral advisors and a trustworthy authority that students can turn to.

Sido Overdijk is a social worker and stresses that "it is incredibly important to help these kids and to prevent youth violence at schools." He is all the more pleased that there will be no more drastic budget cuts from the Dutch government concerning the sector of youth care. Because, in his opinion, this would have been "one of the most stupid things you could do because the youth is the future."

Did or do you feel safe at your school?

  • Yes

  • No

What kind of crime occured at your school?

  • Physical violence (fighting etc.)

  • Psychological violence (bullying etc.)

  • Sexual harassment/abuse

  • Discrimination

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