Tuesday marks ten years since a student at Jokela high school killed eight people, before turning the gun on himself.
On November 7th 2007, Pekka-Eric Auvinen skipped his first lessons of the day. The 18-year-old walked into school at 11:40 and started shooting. For almost 30 minutes he roamed the school corridors, firing dozens of shots from his legally-obtained weapon; and tried to set the building on fire. Hundreds of pupils barricaded themselves in classrooms, with some waiting several hours before police could give the all clear.
The shooting changed many aspects of Finnish society. Firearms regulations were tightened considerably in the following years with little public push-back, even though an estimated 12% of Finns own a gun, and gun ownership and hunting is considered a way of life for many. The way that police train to deal with mass shooting incidents has also changed, as has systems to deal with mental health for students.
But advocates say more needs to be done, especially in the field of mental health.
Alviina Alametsä was in a history and society class on the morning of the shooting. She had just turned 15, and like many teenagers, wasn’t particularly interested to learn about the Finnish political system.
The first shots confused the students.
“The sounds of the shooting, we started hearing them and wondered what’s going on. And very quickly there was this school radio announcement, and we were told to stay in our class and not go outside” she tells News Now Finland.
It would be two hours until police would give them the all clear to leave the classroom. Two hours where Alviina sent text messages to friends and family telling them goodbye. Two hours when her classmates pushed bookshelves in front of the classroom door, and talked about smashing a window with chairs to try and run for safety. Two hours when they heard the gunman get closer and start shooting in the classroom next door.
“I heard from that class, through the walls, girls screaming. It was the sound of slaughter. And I remember understanding… I thought okay there are some people we know and they are being killed right now. It hit me what kind of pain they are going through, how chaotic is the situation”.
And when she was finally allowed outside by members of the police’s ‘Karhu’ armed response squad, Alviina remembers the tiniest details of those moments.
Mental Health Issues
Gunman Pekka-Eric Auvinen was on the fringes of school society. His parents worried that he had mental health issues, but he was not considered ill enough to receive direct support from healthcare professionals.
“If you don’t have friends, it easily stays that way” notes Alviina Alametsä who says she knew who Auvinen was, but was not friends with him.
“The shooter didn’t have that many social circles. Some, but not a wide circle” she adds.
“In the past ten years we have increased students possibilities to have support in nearby schools and hired more special education teachers. That way we can prevent problems better and the help for student comes quicker and more in the right time. If students can do better in schools, they feel better. ” says Markus Torvinen, Head of Education at the local school district.
“We have also educated teachers to see different kind of problems that students might have. We have increased the amount of school social workers and school psychologist and developed the work of student welfare groups. That way we hope we can prevent different kind of problems not to became too big for the student” says Torvinen.
The Tuusula school district, which Jokela is part of, has also developed their classrooms to be more safe, and more conducive to cooperative learning. That includes putting extra doors between classrooms, and improving school safety plans as well. And projects working with anti-bullying initiatives try to tackle some of the root causes that can lead to social exclusion for students.
In the aftermath of the Jokela shooting, police departments across Finland reviewed their own procedures, and looked at new response options.
Each police district has its own operations plans, and officers in Helsinki cover some 400 schools.
They’re more clued up on school layouts, and evacuation plans these days.
“Before Jokela, nobody was asking if someone was going to shoot at the school. They were worried about different things” says Helsinki Police Chief Inspector Jarmo Heinonen.
“But after the event, parents, teachers, students were all worried and asking could this happen to us too?” he says.
In Helsinki, fresh procedures were put into place so that teachers were encouraged to reach out to police if they were worried about some pupils or threats.
And while there are very few credible threats – Chief Inspector Heinonen says they don’t have many cases in Helsinki where they are worried about an active shooter threat – they’ve changed their tactical operations in response to what happened in Jokela.
Previously, police tactics were to act calmly, to try and cool the situation down and talk with the shooter.
“But now we made a method that if there is some kind of active shooting happening, we take some serious risks but we try to go as safe as possible, but fast, and end it” explains Heinonen.
The change in tactics comes as police learned that shooters will often make their last decisions, and in many cases kill themselves, as police arrive. So now Helsinki police would act swiftly and decisively to end the situation, even if it puts officers in more danger initially.
Alviina Alametsä might not have been very interested in her history and society class at Jokela school ten years ago, but the shooting lead her to choose a career in politics.
“Jokela really changed my life 10 years ago” says the 25-year-old, who now represents the Green Alliance on Helsinki City Council, using her position for an advocacy role in mental health policy.
“I hope at least there has been some good developments. But in terms of mental health, [the shooter] was not considered a serious enough case for intensive treatment. He couldn’t have psychotherapy, he just got his medication” explains Alametsä, who feels that after-trauma care for students at the school was not adequate, and poorly handled by authorities, despite the money that was made available.
Helsinki City Council has allocated more money in the 2018 budget for youth mental health services, which Alametsä says are vital, as nationally, the government has cut resources in this area.
And she says more can be done to get people immediate help, rather than get caught up in a system of referrals, and weeks of waiting for appointments, diagnoses and treatment.
“It is already hard to make the decision to seek help for mental health problems. If you have to wait several days or weeks for treatment, the situation can get worse. Help should be accessible, and available immediately for those in need” explains Alametsä.
The Helsinki City Councilor would like to see walk-in clinics available for people with mental health issues to get immediate help and advice, in the same way there are walk-in clinics for people with addiction problems.