Teachers are being encouraged to take action against extremists, reports Yojana Sharma
"HOW do I know if a pupil who shouts 'Heil Hitler' is doing it as a joke, to provoke me, or whether he really believes it?" asked a teacher. "If a pupil scribbles swastikas all over his exercise book, do I have to inform the police?" Forty Berlin teachers are attending a 12-week course on the structure of the neo-Nazi movement, and how to identify the codes, behaviour, music and symbols of far-right groups. On display are the latest neo-Nazi fad - Consdaple sweatshirts. Under an open jacket, only "nsdap" is visible, the official name of Hitler's Nazi party.
"I did get suspicious when suddenly more than one boy was wearing the same nordic symbol around his neck," said one teacher. "If you ban one symbol from class, they just come back with something they think you don't know."
Christine Bergmann, Germany's minister for family affairs, recently announced a 40 million Deutschmark (pound;13m) programme for this year alone to tackle right-wing extremism among youth. Another pound;8m will come from the EU's Social Fund. Three-quarters of the money will be spent on political education, including expanding seminars for teachers. Other initiatives include setting up youth clubs and activities.
Teachers are often at a loss as to how to deal with neo-Nazis, who comprise 10 per cent of all pupils, according to Germanys internal intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.
"Teachers just don't want to confront it," said Marlis Weissleder, a teacher at the August Hermann Francke School in Berlin's Marzahn district in the former east.
Many teachers in the former east see xenophobic comments as youngsters exercising "freedom of expression" after years of communist rule.
"We do not want to be like the Stasi informers of the old days," said a teacher from the east Berlin district of Hellersdorf.
The state of Brandenburg, which runs special seminars for teachers, has issued clear guidelines to schools: police must be informed if Nazi symbols appear or racist attacks occur on school premises. Parents will receive a letter if their children are seen to be expressing neo-Nazi ideas.
While the police must handle the hardcore neo-Nazis, teachers can be an "early warning system" and possibly prevent new recruits, said Brandenburg officials. "The idea is to win back the copycats and sympathisers," said Michael Rump-Raeuber, founder of the Berlin group Teachers against the Far Right.
Recently, a school in North Rhine Westfalia was praised by Christine Bergmann for banning bomber jackets and combat boots, a typical neo-Nazi "uniform", from the classroom.
Some teachers say the neo-Nazis are often the more disciplined boys because of the militaristic nature of the groups.