Zero tolerance is required!

Leena Koskela
Leena Koskela
Leena Koskela
Leena Koskela

The primary school Jakomäen peruskoulu in Helsinki marked the Week against Racism with a visit from the Minister of Education Krista Kiuru. Speaking about racism and discrimination, her message was clearly: zero tolerance for all forms of bullying.

The school’s ninth-graders gathered round during Ms Kiuru’s visit to their classroom. A white cotton sheet was spread out on a table in front of them. The idea was for them and the Minister of Education and Science, Krista Kiuru (Social Democrat), to notate it with ideas of howto counteract racism.

The atmosphere is expectant, yet none of the pupils seems keen to say anything, so at first the minister does most of the talking. Then there’s the uncertainty of deciding who should write what. And people’s handwriting differs. A group of boys squirm.

‘Come on, guys!’ encourages Ms Kiuru. ‘What kind of a person is not a racist?’

’Someone who doesn’t tease or bully people,’ suggests one of the boys.

’A person who doesn't discriminate against anyone, and is friendly to all,’ adds another student.

The Minister of Education was a teacher before she became a government minister, so she is accustomed to working with young people. Little by little, she wins them over. Several students even draw something on the sheet.

The next topic is how to prevent racist behaviour.

‘Treat others as you would like to be treated,’ says a girl wearing a headscarf.

The comment is apt and makes the group go quiet for a moment. Then there is the question of what qualifies as bullying or discrimination.

‘An action or words are bullying if another person feels bullied by them. That would be enough,’ says Ms Kiuru.

All the pupils unhesitatingly agree with her expectation of zero tolerance. The sheet fills with yet more words and images, and a good vibe has built up within the group. Watching these young people is encouraging.

Attitude makeover for seventh-graders
After the ninth-grade class the minister moves on to a computer classroom full of seventh-graders. Here the reactions are markedly bolder.

Guided by Ms Kiuru and Emilia Fagerlund, who plans multicultural work at the Finnish Red Cross, the class try their hand at the FRC Racism Quiz.Its level of difficulty varies. Some questions seem easy, but in the end the answer that seemed so obvious can prove not to have been the best one.

In what language should you address a foreign-looking person in Finland?
At first, the pupils suggest English, then sign language.

‘Isn’t that a little prejudiced?’ asks Ms Kiuru, then adds, ‘Say, someone comes to live in Finland, goes to a lot of trouble to learn our language only to find that we avoid speaking to them in Finnish.’

Ms Kiuru explores the attitudes of the class members. First, she asks if any of them could imagine marrying someone from Mozambique. Only a couple of hands go up, though no one would directly admit to being racist. Well, how many of them think they are a bully? No one admits to that either.

How many in the class have been bullied? Approximately two thirds put up their hand.

Speaking with the seventh-graders, Ms Kiuru also talks about zero tolerance towards bullying. But when they are asked who would not tolerate bullying, only a few hands are raised. After further discussion it transpires that some of the pupils, particularly those whose origins are from outside Finland, do get racist treatment from their classmates.

What seems confusing to an adult witnessing such a discussion is that no one denies it. The atmosphere is completely different to how it had been in the ninth grade earlier. Ms Kiuru returns to the need for zero tolerance.

‘If nothing else can achieve it, I have been thinking of making any form of bullying against the law,’ she says. ‘But wouldn’t it be nicer if we all took responsibility for our own attitudes, instead of the government having to legislate against bullying behaviour, as they have done in Canada, for instance?’

You could hear a pin drop.

Ms Kiuru and the pupils make a deal. Student Board member, Hanna, 13, promises the minister to keep an eye on classroom behaviour. If the pupils achieve zero tolerance of bullying, the class will be rewarded by a visit to Krista Kiuru at the Finnish Parliament!

Values from home
Following the visit from the Minister of Education, the school’s headmaster Otto Katz said, ‘I feel good and relaxed about today. The ninth-graders are already smart enough to produce the sentiments expected of them, which is a good thing, of course. But the session with the seventh-graders gave an unexpectedly realistic view of what we already knew – that the class has a problem with racist talk and behaviour. The astonishing thing is that the pupils spoke so openly about it. They said straight out that bullying happens and the bullies even owned up to it!’

No shame was expressed during that classroom debate. Values and behaviour are said to come from the home. Does that mean the schools need to also train the parents?

The headmaster thought that was a good question, ‘But, of course, that is what this is about to a large extent. In school we can only do so much with the time and resources available to us. We need more time to talk about attitudes and equality.’

Many of the students were happy with the minister’s visit. Seventh-graders Hanna and Arzo, 14, appreciated both the minister's visit and her message.

‘I keep thinking of that... that... zero…’

‘Tolerance?’

‘Yes, that’s it!’ say the girls.

During the Week against Racism, 17–23 March, 2014, the Red Cross held Attitude Works events all over Finland.
Learn more about Attitude Works at: www.eirasismille.fi