Monday, December 13, 2010

The next Legion of Honor

Yesterday in Besancon, a city in the east of France, a 17 year old teenage boy took a class of 20 preschool children hostage.
But after hours of tense negotiations with police officials and the GIPN elite assault team, the teen released all the children and their teacher safely.
This news grabbed me. For many years I taught preschool. Not only did I feel for the families but for the teacher and wondered how I would have handled an extreme situation like that. Our biggest scare was a false fire alarm. And I feel, as contradictory as it seems, for this disturbed teen who resorted to such desperate measures.

"We brought in meals, and it was at that moment that the GIPN was able to intervene, separate the children, free them and apprehend the hostage-taker,” the mayor said.
French television showed a wide-eyed girl being draped in a green blanket and carried away from the school. Police and worried families had surrounded the preschool in a neighbourhood of housing projects with a big immigrant population on the western edge of Besancon.
At first the hostage-taker's motives were unclear. Reportedly he wielded two knives later they were described as swords then indicated he wanted to kill himself in the classroom. "It was he (the hostage-taker) who contacted police ... He asked several times for a weapon to kill himself," the mayor said on France-Info radio, apparently referring to a gun. "Beyond that, he expressed no violence toward the children."
The teen was known in the area and he appeared to be gentle with his preschool hostages. He never threatened the children, even allowing them to go to the bathroom. Several parents interviewed on French television said their children seemed unaware of the gravity of the situation, and many colored to pass the time.
No doubt thanks to the teacher, I'd give her a medal.

Sadly the Besancon Mayor said the teen had been treated for depression, but had not taken his medication in recent days. "From the start, police understood he wanted to hurt himself more than the children and the teacher," said an official. Police talked with the young man throughout the ordeal "so he would turn himself in peacefully and not kill himself." The hostage-taker initially seized a class of 20 children but released at least 14 throughout the morning, including one who "more or less escaped."

That's a four year old for you.

The drama concluded around lunchtime, this is France, when officers in masks, their firearms pointed at the school's windows and doors, entered the school building. They were in contact by telephone with the hostage-taker most of the time. Families huddled around the school, with children bundled against the cold, according to images on French television. The pre-school was immediately surrounded by police and the other classes were evacuated.
However in 1993 a similar preschool hostage event took place on the outskirts of Paris.
This brought then Mayor Mr. Sarkozy into France's headlines in the wealthy Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, where Sarkozy as mayor helped free nursery school children and a teacher who had been taken hostage by a masked gunman.

This hostage taker called himself the Human Bomb and his story didn't end as happily.

At the time after a two day hostage situation he'd demanded 18 million dollars, had booby trapped the classroom and had 16 sticks of dynamite strapped to his body.
The Human Bomb said his motives were purely financial, and he had planned his escape meticulously. The authorities gave him part of the money but decided to use force to end the crisis after he said he wanted to take at least one child with him as a human shield. After two critical days masked police commandos burst into the booby-trapped classroom while the hooded gunman was dozing and freed six girls with their nursery teacher and shot him dead. At the same time a second team went over to the children and covered them with mattresses so they did not see the shooting. Within minutes the girls were reunited with their parents and seemed unperturbed by the dramatic events of the last 46 hours. Their teacher, Laurence Dreyfus, aged 30, kept the children calm throughout the ordeal and told them the man with the gun was "hunting wolves". He did allow her out of the classroom at intervals to collect food and to reassure parents. At one point, she smuggled in a video camera used by the police to plan their rescue. There were 21 three- and four-year-olds in the classroom at the time but after painstaking negotiations 15 children were released in batches chosen by Ms. Dreyfus.

I clipped this story from the newspaper. At the time I was teaching part-time and remember going to my classroom, sitting down on one of the little chairs by the playdough table and plotting how I could handle a Human Bomb with dynamite strapped to his chest. Would I have the guts to stay calm, to keep the children occupied and negotiate with a hostage taker? Smuggle in a video camera? My knees were shaking, I remember. So, if I couldn't have the gumption in real life, not that the situation ever presented itself, I thought about how I'd handle it in fiction. How my character could save preschool children from a bomb set in their classroom. A couple of years later my version came out on the page in Murder in Belleville. Not me, but my character Aimée, who was almost as courageous as these real teachers.
The Human Bomb was later identified as 42-year-old Eric Schmitt, an Algerian-born French citizen and a loner. His computer business had been made bankrupt two years before and 18 months later he was laid off from an electrical firm.
He had no previous convictions apart from two for speeding and drink-driving. He had learned to handle firearms in the army.

In an interview later in Paris-Match magazine after the end of the hostage crisis, the preschool teacher Laurence Dreyfus said she had found it hard to come to terms with all the praise heaped upon her.
That year she was awarded France's highest civilian award for bravery, the Legion of Honour.
I think the teacher in Besancon deserves one, too.
Cara - Tuesday


  1. These heroic, courageous--and smart--teachers deserve a great deal of credit and thanks.

    The negotiators must have been quiet good, too.

    I wish that in the U.S. that these incidents would end as well as the one did in France within the last few days, but they often end horribly.

    I don't know about France, but given terrible events at high schools and colleges over here show the limitations and errors of the mental health system, which for the sake of so many people, should be much improved.

  2. Errata: "quiet" above should be "quite."

  3. Most of my experience has been with high school age children, although I have taught at all levels.

    The first of the notorious attacks at a school was at Columbine. Massachusetts students were on vacation that week so the school administrators in all the cities and towns went back to school to design plans for various emergencies that would be in place when school re-opened. There were meetings for the teachers after school the week we went back to iron out the wrinkles.

    Thankfully we have never had to use the systems in any of the schools but, periodically, there are unannounced lock-down drills. Doors are locked, windows to the corridors are covered, and students have to move to the corners of the rooms so they can't be seen or be in the line of fire through a window.

    During lock-down, there can't be a sound from the rooms. During these drills the adults get to see just how young teen-agers are. There is never so much as a whisper.

    We learned during our many meetings, that our city was of a type least likely to have the circumstances that led to the Columbine disaster. Students who live in communities in which most social groups are formed in school have a greater risk because if a student doesn't fit in at school, is bullied, or shunned, they don't have the opportunity to form a social circle anywhere else.

    Students in cities like mine are less likely to have those kinds of divisions. There are two high schools but there is open enrollment; students can choose which high school they want to attend. There are five public middle schools and two parochial schools that feed students to the high schools. The city has a very successful sports program, some programs beginning at age 5, that include soccer, hockey, softball, basketball, football, and lacrosse. The teams aren't based on neighborhoods so the kids make friends across the city.

    School is not the only source of social interaction; pretty much everyone can find a group. Bullying is an issue that is getting worse but the schools, on all levels, address that issue frequently.

    The problem in most societies is that parents and teachers have difficulty discerning whether a teenager is undergoing the normal rapid mood changes, difficulty in communicating, especially with parents, and the belief that they are so different that no one will ever understand them. A CATCHER IN THE RYE has been influential for six decades for those reasons.

    There are children who need significant treatment by mental health professionals and there are parents who refuse to acknowledge the need. Society is fortunate that so few act out of their confusion and unhappiness but as long as there is one young person in that particular hell, there is always the danger.