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THE WORLD

Time for Explanations Not Yet Here, Stunned German City Told

April 29, 2002|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ERFURT, Germany — Churchgoers crowded into services here Sunday as residents mourned their losses from a school massacre by a teenage gunman that left 17 people dead last week, including the shooter.

Preaching at the city's main cathedral, Claus-Peter Maerz, a local priest and theology professor, told the congregation that now is a time for grieving for those killed in Friday's rampage, not for expecting answers.

"The time for explanations hasn't come yet, and it will never fully come," Maerz said. "There will be a time for talking. One will have to talk about schools and about security, about violence in our society. . . . But first of all, we will have to listen, to be silent. We will have to open ourselves up to the pain, and we will have to confront the pain."

In an apparent act of revenge for having been expelled this year, Robert Steinhaeuser, 19, walked into Johann Gutenberg secondary school Friday morning and in a 15-minute blood bath killed 13 school employees, two students and a policeman. The dead included about one-quarter of the school's teachers.

Shocked education authorities had no plans Sunday for when and where students could resume classes. Proposals were made to have them return to the school this week or to divide students among other schools, but the ideas were dropped or postponed.

After meeting at City Hall on Sunday with students, parents and teachers, Mayor Manfred Ruge offered them use of space at the building this week, but for meetings with one another and psychologists rather than for classroom instruction. Ruge said those at the gathering had resolved to reopen the school as quickly as possible and "make a new beginning."

Meanwhile, politicians and other public figures across Germany engaged in a growing debate over issues highlighted by the incident, including gun control, violence in entertainment, and the degree to which schools should enforce high standards through final exams and graduation rules.

Steinhaeuser's expulsion, which was for forging excuse notes for absences, came while he was repeating his final year of school. Under particularly strict education rules in the state of Thuringia, of which Erfurt is the capital, that meant the only diploma he could receive was one equivalent to finishing ninth grade. That would block him from attending university and make it difficult for him to get a good job.

"Until 11 a.m. Friday, there was a loud demand in this society for performance-oriented schools," said Michael Krapp, the state government minister in charge of education. "Now because of this tragic event, exactly the opposite is demanded. . . . We have to find the right middle way."

Erfurt Police Chief Rainer Grube told a news conference Sunday that investigators searching Steinhaeuser's home found violence-laden comics and videos as well as several computer games featuring "intensive weapons usage."

Compact discs confiscated at his home, according to German media reports, included a song with the English lyrics "Shoot down your naughty teachers with a pump gun."

Edmund Stoiber, the conservative challenger to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in national elections set for this year, has reacted to the killings with a call for a ban on violent video and computer games. His party said Stoiber would visit Erfurt today. Schroeder came Saturday, and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer visited Sunday.

Sigmar Gabriel, the prime minister of the state of Lower Saxony and a leading figure in Schroeder's Social Democratic Party, said Sunday that he too favors tight restrictions on violent video and computer games, but he charged that Stoiber's call was hypocritical because "it is stated now very suddenly."

"Most politicians who claim this now," Gabriel said, "have allowed it for years that night after night, private TV is exclusively showing films glorifying violence, where young people, especially young men, learn only about violence as a means for solving conflicts."

A new gun law passed by the lower house of Parliament on Friday--about the time the school massacre was unfolding--requires licensing of air pistols, not just regular guns, and imposes stiffer penalties for those found to possess guns for which they have no permits.

The school killings have prompted calls for further tightening of the law.

"We propose the government, states and coalition parties sit down next week to look again at the law in the light of the events in Erfurt," said Cem Ozdemir, domestic affairs spokesman for the Greens, the junior partner in government.

There are 10 million legally held weapons in the nation of 83 million people.

Police Chief Grube said Steinhaeuser's parents had not known of his expulsion. Education officials said that because Steinhaeuser was older than 18, school authorities were not responsible for informing them.

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