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Yle investigation: Authorities, school failed Koskela victim

A 16-year-old boy was found dead in December after a prolonged period of bullying.

kuvituskuva katkennut lyijykynä ja punaista väriä ruutuvihkon päällä
The victim in the Koskela case fell through both child protection and school safety nets. Image: Antti Haanpää / Yle
Yle News

Social services and schools failed to help or protect a 16-year-old boy before he was killed in Koskela in early December, according to an Yle investigation.

Last week, prosecutors filed murder charges against three teenagers in relation to the boy’s death.

According to the police’s preliminary investigation, the victim was subjected to a prolonged period of bullying by the three suspects, which included three separate violent assaults in the lead up to his death on 4 December.

Police have described the acts as sadistic, humiliating and premeditated.

The role of social support networks in Finland is to identify problems faced by children and young people and to protect them in difficult situations, but an Yle investigation has revealed that the victim in this case was left without the necessary support.

This was especially the case during his primary school education and later as a client of child protection services.

Questions over role of authorities, adults

While the perpetrators are always responsible for their crimes, the question of the absence of authorities and other adults is also relevant in cases where the victim and perpetrators are minors.

The victim had spent his last weeks living in a children’s home. When he failed to return to the accommodation on 4 December, there was no investigation into his whereabouts, despite the fact that the boy was considered to be conscientious and attentive.

His parents requested a search as soon as the boy did not arrive at a scheduled meeting the next morning, Saturday 5 December, but no search for him was carried out over the course of that weekend.

At school, the victim's difficulties were addressed too late and in some places remained unaddressed, according to teachers interviewed by Yle. This lack of proper support, they said, had a significant impact on the victim’s life.

His parents had also tried for a long time to seek help for their child, close family relatives told Yle, as he had been severely depressed for the last years of his life.

As part of an investigation into the social structures which failed so badly in the lead up to the events of 4 December, Yle interviewed more than 20 people who knew the victim, the perpetrators of the crime or their close associates as well as their school and social environments. They have been anonymised here because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.

Police have previously announced the launch of a preliminary probe into how child welfare services and schools dealt with the case.

The victim’s parents have given Yle permission to share his health information.

No search over entire weekend

According to Yle's information, the victim was placed in a children’s home at the request of his parents during the autumn of 2020.

Usually parents ask for a placement for their child when their own efforts to resolve the child’s problems have failed.

At the children’s home, the victim’s troubles remained undetected, including the ongoing bullying and suspected assaults.

This relates to three violent assaults that are alleged to have taken place in the lead up to the suspected murder on 4 December, which were not noticed, and no search was undertaken when the victim failed to return to the home that night. Check-in time at children’s homes in Helsinki is usually between 9pm and 10pm on weekends.

According to police information, the victim met with the three suspects at 7pm on that Friday evening. His body was discovered by construction workers near the grounds of Koskela hospital on Monday morning, 7 December.

The director of the children’s home in question and the City of Helsinki's child welfare management service told Yle that they did not want to comment on the case.

Sources: Bullying began at primary school

The victim and two of the accused had attended the same primary school, in the district of Käpylä, near Koskela.

Former attendees of the same school told Yle that in addition to the suspects in the murder, several other students bullied the victim over the years, and police want to ascertain through the preliminary investigation how this was tackled by school authorities.

Detective Inspector Markku Silén from the Helsinki Police Department confirmed that issues related to the victim’s schooling were part of the ongoing investigation, but he did not want to go into further details.

Teachers interviewed by Yle said the fact that special support was not provided early enough for the victim ultimately proved to be fatal.

Story continues after the photo.

kuvituskuva pulpetti ja tuoli lumihangessa
Teachers interviewed by Yle considered the role of the school to be central in the fact that the victim did not receive support early enough. Image: Antti Haanpää / Yle

The need for support should be identified as early as possible, ideally in primary school, the teachers said, which may include special needs education as well as the student receiving help from the school nurse or psychologist.

This might be due to a learning disability or a neuropsychiatric problem, for example autism or an attention deficit disorder such as ADHD or ADD.

"It is typical for young people who are left without early support to become depressed or otherwise symptomatic because they or their peers do not have the right idea about what makes them different," a former teacher at the school said, adding that often such young people try to cope and adapt in ways that are harmful to themselves.

They also very easily become the victim of bullies, the teacher said.

Former schoolmates told Yle that the victim’s personality changed during the course of his primary school education, and they believe the effects of bullying were the main reason.

"In the first grade, he was quite cheery and he had a couple of friends," one classmate recalled.

However, by the fourth grade things were different, and the boy began to isolate himself from others as his friendships dwindled.

By high school, the boy's ill demeanour could not be missed, classmates said, and some of them were also aware that he was depressed.

"He was depressed about the constant bullying," one of them said, adding that on bad days, he would sit with his "head on the desk".

Despite this, other students recalled that he was also often happy, laughing at jokes made by teachers, who found him to be personable and talented.

Adolescence may be too late for diagnosis, support

Sources familiar with the school also reported shortcomings in the documents that need to be prepared for students with special needs.

These documents affect the flow of information between different teachers, as they are available via the school messaging service Wilma.

"It shows everyone who teaches the student how to work with him or her," explained the teacher who previously worked at the school.

However, the teacher recounted that these documents were sometimes left completely blank, meaning that staff could not identify which students needed support. This can become an even bigger problem when students move from primary to secondary school.

"If the documents do not contain any information, the need for student support remains unclear to teachers. It is not an early intervention if it happens during the turmoil of adolescence," the teacher said.

Some students also need a diagnosis in order to receive treatment and support, but it may be difficult to accurately diagnose an issue by the time a young person reaches adolescence.

"Their entire life may already be in crisis, and their family may be desperate," the teacher added.

Story continues after the photo.

kuvituskuva nuori istuu yksin pulpetin ääressä graffitien ympäröimänä
Early interventions are crucial for helping young people deal with difficult problems. Image: Antti Haanpää / Yle

According to Yle's information, the Koskela victim's situation was not properly addressed until his later years of basic schooling and by that time he was so deeply depressed that proper examinations or diagnoses could no longer be made.

Yle asked the school’s principal Sirpa Kopsa to comment on these allegations.

She replied that she did not accept that there was a lack of support, but added that she could not comment further on the matter due to the ongoing police investigation.

Liisa Pohjolainen, Director of Education at the City of Helsinki, told Yle that city schools are provided with very precise instructions on how to draw up special needs support plans for students.

However, she said the schools have given feedback that the preparation of the special support plan and the related documents has been perceived as labourious and time-consuming.

"It is important that these are recorded, but we have received feedback from the schools that it is too bureaucratic," Pohjolainen said.

Classroom inclusion "crippling" primary school system

Some of the teachers interviewed by Yle also linked the challenges of providing special education and support to the issue of inclusion.

Inclusion refers to special needs students being placed in regular classes instead of in separate classes, as was the case under the previous system before the reform brought about by the 2010 Basic Education Act.

However, the law does not specify how many special students may be in one class.

The teacher may be on their own, without any teaching or special assistants, even though there are several people in need of special support in the class in addition to the regular students.

Primary school teachers have in the past criticised this system of inclusion as adequate resources have not been provided, despite promises to the contrary.

According to one teacher who previously worked at the Koskela victim’s school, inclusion has "crippled" the entire primary school system.

"In a regular class, you have special needs students with, for example, autistic or perceptual disorders. In addition, there are immigrants who do not speak the language. For one hour a week teachers should provide personal instruction for everyone. It is a total impossibility," the teacher said.

'Atmosphere of fear' at victim’s school

A number of interviewees also reported a tense atmosphere between the principal and the teachers at the school attended by the victim and the suspects in the Koskela case.

Some even described an atmosphere of fear, which became the subject of an official complaint to the Regional State Administrative Agency of Southern Finland (Avi) in 2015.

At the time, Avi conducted an occupational health and safety inspection at the school, which assessed that the school's problems could meet the criteria for harmful, dangerous harassment or other inappropriate treatment.

According to the inspection report, the problems at the school had persisted for nearly ten years.

The teachers who made the complaint considered the way the school was run to be detrimental to the working environment. Avi’s report mentions harassment and ill-treatment, among other issues.

The tense atmosphere at the school could have affected the sharing of information about students between teachers, one member of staff said.

Another teacher interviewed by Yle said that working relations had been in such poor shape for a long time that the school "was not in a position to take care of anything."

Several interviewees also reflected on how bullying experienced by staff may have contributed to the inability to properly address bullying between students.

The current principal, Sirpa Kopsa, was also in the position at the time the complaint was made to Avi. She declined to comment on the inspection report to Yle.

Director of Education Pohjolainen said that management at Käpylä school was strengthened by the addition of two deputy principals just over a year ago, and the school's results have improved in a recent municipal welfare survey.

"But if there is workplace bullying in any school, it should be addressed and it should be made known. I hope that if there is something exceptional, it will be told," Pohjolainen said.

One suspect changed school

Yle's investigation found that the victim seems to have fallen through the gaps between several support networks, but also uncovered evidence that the suspects in the case were also the subject of concerns.

They had even come to the attention of police in the past.

One of the suspects moved to another school at the ninth grade, or at the age of 14-15.

One teacher told Yle that, in general, when a student changes school, it is rarely a matter of removing only one "awkward" student, but changing schools can be part of an attempt to dismantle broader, harmful group dynamics.

Students recalled that the transfer was drug-related, as the teenager who changed school had been spending time with a gang selling amphetamines and cannabis.

Police believe two of the suspects were under the influence of drugs during one of the previous assaults.

Many of Yle’s interviewees said they feared that something just as serious could happen again.

"I'm worried that the death of this boy is just the beginning. There are many children and young people struggling in schools," one special education expert said.

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