A junior high school student killed himself by jumping in front of a train in the town of Yahaba, Iwate Prefecture, earlier this month. Evidence strongly suggests that bullying at school drove him to commit suicide. The tragedy happened even though the 13-year-old boy had repeatedly sent signals about his plight to his homeroom teacher. The school’s principal admitted that his death could have been prevented. The homeroom teacher, the principal and other teachers at the school should ask themselves if they drew the right lessons from past cases of school bullying.
According to media reports, Ryo Muramatsu, a second-year student, had started writing about his plight in spring last year in a notebook that he exchanged with his homeroom teacher. The evidence suggests that she did not take concrete action to save the boy although his notes indicated that the situation he found himself in was growing worse. In early May last year, he wrote, “I feel as if I was being bullied. I hate it. This is the limit.” In July that year he wrote, “I again started feeling fed up with bullying.” His entry in the notebook on Feb. 26 this year said, “There were quite a few times that I felt like dying.” In writing back to him, the teacher suggested that he absent himself from school for a few days and “change his way of thinking.” The boy wrote to her the next day: “I have received courage from you. I made up my mind anew to do my best.”
But in and after April, new entries in his notebook such as “Violence is continuing” and “I cannot stand it any more” suggested that the bullying was continuing and that he was having suicidal thoughts. These strong signals should have prompted the teacher to take action, including informing other teachers and school officials of the problem.
The school also missed other chances to help the boy. In May and June, it carried out a survey to find out whether students had problems at school. In the May survey, the boy stated that some students were speaking ill of him, ostracizing him or using violence on him. The homeroom teacher appears to have recognized at least in May that he was facing serious problems. In the notebook, she wrote, “Please tell me (about the problems you are facing.) I will speak (to those who are causing the problems).” According to the school, the teacher acted as arbitrator when the boy had trouble with other students that month. But problems flared up again later.
In June, an increasing number of entries written by the boy stated “I would like to die.” Another entry stated to the teacher, “You are an indispensable person for me.” His last entry written on June 29 suggested that he was going to commit suicide. It said, “The place (for me) to die has already been chosen” — which should have prompted the teacher to take immediate action. On July 5, he wrote in his portable game console, “This is my last post.” About five hours later, he jumped in front of the train, killing himself.
Many of the boy’s entries clearly indicate that he was contemplating suicide. But according to the principal and the chief of the secretariat at the town’s board of education, the homeroom teacher had thought that the boy’s trouble had been resolved. Why she believed this to be the case despite reading his notes and the survey results must be scrutinized.
School officials and the board of education in Yahaba have launched a probe into the case. But given past experiences in similar cases — in the October 2011 suicide of a junior high school boy in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, the school and the local board of education came under severe public criticism for their flip-flops over the circumstance leading to his suicide and their failure to gather key information — an investigation by the board of education and the school alone won’t suffice. At a minimum, strict third-party oversight of the investigation is necessary.
A critical factor in the Yahaba case is that the homeroom teacher failed to share the information she had about the boy suggesting that he was contemplating suicide with her colleagues and supervisors. Just this past March it was determined that bullying was partially responsible for the May 2014 suicide of a second-year junior high school boy in Takizawa, Iwate Prefecture. Therefore the teacher should have been aware of the consequences that bullying can bring.
Individual teachers must keep an eye out for bullying and take steps to resolve such problems when they become aware of them. But when the possibilities of physical harm and suicide become salient, they should be required to report their findings to their colleagues and supervisors. They in turn should take immediate steps to resolve the problem before events can take a tragic turn.
Apparently, copies of the report on the Takizawa suicide case by a third-party committee have not been distributed to primary and junior high schools in the prefecture, raising the question of just how serious school and education authorities are about learning from past mistakes in the handling of bullying cases. Teachers and education officials should keep in mind and act according to the key principles of the law on measures to prevent bullying, enacted in 2013 following the 2011 Otsu suicide — that the national and local governments, communities, schools and families should cooperate with each other and jointly take measures to prevent bullying, and that the school as a whole should take such measures and act quickly when bullying is suspected.