Belgian Students Retrace Teen Shooter's Steps When a high school student in Finland shot and killed eight people and himself late last year, European Union leaders rushed to tighten gun laws. Justice ministers of the 27 member states approved the measures last week. But one Belgian city that suffered a teen shooting is taking surprising steps of its own to keep kids safe.
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Belgian Students Retrace Teen Shooter's Steps

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Belgian Students Retrace Teen Shooter's Steps

Belgian Students Retrace Teen Shooter's Steps

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When a high schooler in Finland went on a rampage a few months ago, killing eight people and then himself, European Union leaders rushed to tighten gun laws that allowed minors to purchase firearms. Justice ministers of the member states just approved the new measures last week. But one Belgian city that suffered its own teen shooting isn't counting on laws to keep its kids safe. It's taking some surprising steps of its own

Teri Schultz reports from Antwerp.

TERI SCHULTZ: It's been almost two years and Gio De Weerd still can't believe what happened that day.

Mr. GIO DE WEERD (Peace activist, Pax Christi): The woman (unintelligible) sitting over there. She was sitting, reading, she was just - he shot her. And in Antwerp we never had such a kind of a problem of that kind of madness.

SCHULTZ: The madness of Hans Van Themsche, the Belgian 18-year-old who shot three strangers in downtown Antwerp in May 2006 because he was furious at being expelled from school. It was while the shaken city buried the two victims who died that peace activist De Weerd says he realized such a shocking incident needed a dramatic response.

Mr. DE WEERD: We always knew that - during the funeral we knew that the atmosphere was we have to do something.

SCHULTZ: By we, De Weerd means the Catholic organization he works for, Pax Christi, which was already active in teaching conflict resolution in schools. But few people could have expected the something Pax Christi decided to do - to make children walk in the footsteps of the killer to teach them it was the wrong way to handle negative feelings.

Shepherded along narrow, cobblestone streets in downtown Antwerp, groups of students aged nine to 12 retrace Van Themsche's deadly path in a sort of Belgian version of scared straight.

He came from there?

Mr. DE WEERD: Yes, from there. And then he walked that way, and you see that plateā€¦

SCHULTZ: Interspersed with lessons in problem solving, communication and friendship, the youngsters see where Van Themsche bought the semi-automatic rifle, where he walked looking for victims, where he severely wounded one woman and killed a two-year-old and her nanny.

What do the children say?

Mr. DE WEERD: Nothing. They're quiet. They are very quiet.

SCHULTZ: Schools here are increasingly turning to students themselves to help in conflict prevention efforts.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

SCHULTZ: In a secluded cabin in the woods north of Brussels, a group of teenage peer mediators are training others how to counsel school mates who are fighting, being bullied or isolating themselves. Sixteen-year-old Jonah Strassen(ph) says he does see kids on campus who show warning signs of repressed anger like Hans Van Themsche did. The mediators are taught to reach out.

Mr. JONAH STRASSEN (Peer mediator): We learn how to act. We'll do our duty and we will come and help those kids.

SCHULTZ: While this program is only a couple of years old, he and fellow mediator Sara Jabout(ph) says they are already making a big difference, especially with their younger counterparts.

Ms. SARA JABOUT (Peer mediator): I think this project will grow and it will help a lot.

SCHULTZ: Back on the streets of Antwerp, Gio De Weerd defends what some may consider too graphic a teaching example for nine-year-olds.

Mr. DE WEERD: It's important that they know that life goes on and that if life goes on that it should be less violent. And I think it's worked.

SCHULTZ: He suggests American cities that suffer from violence should take a look at Antwerp's idea and perhaps take their own walk.

For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz in Antwerp, Belgium.

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