‘I Felt Very Scared’: Exchange Students Bewildered by School Violence

By Samantha Dietel, Editor in Chief

For local foreign exchange students, this month’s school shooter threats were a culture shock.

As violent incidents and perceived threats swept across southeastern Wisconsin at the start of December, fear spread among many of the foreign exchange students attending the West Bend High Schools this year. Considering that school shootings are not an issue back in their home countries, the students were particularly disoriented.

“I felt very scared,” said West exchange student Prado Marcos, who is from Seville, Spain. “I don’t feel 100 percent safe in (WBHS). I know that there is more security in the school now, but I think at any time there can be this problem in our school.”

Marcos had heard of school shootings happening in Florida or California, but never Wisconsin, so she had not expected to face this panic so close to her school in America.

Carmen Fernandez, a West exchange student from Madrid, Spain, had also not anticipated this type of event to happen while she studied in the U.S.

“I thought that one of the days of the week someone could come and shoot,” Fernandez said. “I couldn’t believe and I was afraid, because when I decided to come one year here I didn’t think that I could live the experience of a shooting.”

East exchange student Sunna Westermann, who is from Kiel, Germany, knew that school shootings are common in the U.S., but because they are rare back home, she was especially shocked to hear about the Waukesha and Oshkosh incidents.

“It was surprising when you hear about schools near here, like 40 minutes away, and then how we see the many police officers and everything,” Westermann said. “I know that the teachers knew what to do, all the police officers knew what to do, but I wasn’t like, ‘Okay, everything is totally safe.’ I knew that something could happen (at WBHS).”

However, East exchange student Beste Tirpan had been told to expect the possibility of a school shooter. Prior to reaching the U.S., she was warned of America’s school safety issues because in her home of Istanbul, Turkey, gun violence is practically unheard of in academic institutions. According to a CNN report published in May 2018, there had been one school shooting in Turkey since 2009, compared to 288 in the U.S. 

“I already knew (about the possibility of a shooter threat) because all of my counselors were like, ‘Just expect it because that is a thing there (in the U.S.),’” Tirpan said.

Tirpan also explained that in Turkish schools, she has only ever noticed security guards at entrances. She noted that this is different than WBHS, where police liaison officers are present every day.

“I’ve never seen a police officer in a school before,” Tirpan said.

Tirpan also noted that in Turkey, school shootings are not an issue because the right to own a gun is highly restricted.

“Not everyone can get a gun in my country,” Tirpan said. “You have to be in the army or you have to be a police officer to get a gun, or you have to have a really good reason and a paper saying that your mental health is enough to get a gun.”

“When I decided to come here I didn’t think that I could live the experience of a shooting.”
– Carmen Fernandez, foreign exchange student

According to Westermann, Germany’s gun laws are similar. Limited gun ownership rights appears to be a thread among many foreign countries, particularly those in Europe.

“Here (in the U.S.) you can have a gun and could take the gun and go to school with it, and in Germany—everywhere in Europe—you just can’t buy a gun,” Westermann said. “It’s just only police officers have a gun, so you don’t really think that someone could go into the school with a gun.”

However, these strict gun laws extend far beyond the borders of Europe. According to West exchange student Linh Nguyen, people in her home country of Vietnam are also not allowed to own a gun, with the exception of law enforcement officers.

Nguyen believes that Americans are reckless when it comes to gun ownership.

“I feel like there’s no reason to allow students to own a gun and to legally own a gun,” Nguyen said. “And even adults, there’s no reason for them to legally own a gun.”

In general, West Bend’s foreign exchange students are in favor of tightening American gun control laws, as they believe this may help reduce the number of school shootings. Nguyen particularly supports banning firearms in the U.S. However, she thinks that may not be enough to completely solve the problem, that it may come down to improving the mental health of students.

“I feel like it’s all about the students’ behavior,” Nguyen said. “My friends in my school, they never think about violence in school, let alone bringing a weapon, like a knife or something. It’s all about how parents have to be responsible in terms of how to talk to their kids about their problems so that they don’t cause some spontaneous behavioral problems like that.”

Tirpan thinks that having firearms easily available in the U.S. might not be the problem. She noted that Americans have always had guns, yet school shootings are a new issue. Tirpan suspects that violent video games and other forms of media may play a role in this.

“I think what changed is the kids, basically, and their ways of acting,” Tirpan said. “Maybe not mental health, but I think they’re being affected by social media and technology.”

This article is part of a series of stories about school safety.

(Top image: West exchange students Prado Marcos, from Spain, and Linh Nguyen, from Vietnam, pose outside their U.S. history classroom. Behind them is a mural painted by East junior Annie Wanasek last year. Photo taken today by Samantha Dietel, Editor in Chief.)

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