OSAKA — The main gate of Hakata Elementary School in the city of Fukuoka is kept wide open.

The gymnasium — partly underground — has glass walls facing the street, allowing passersby to peer down at the students running and jumping inside.

Schools nationwide have tightened security to guard against intruders after a man stabbed to death eight children at a school last June 8.

The intruder entered Osaka Kyoiku University Ikeda Elementary School from a terrace facing the playground during a morning break.

In comparison, it could be argued that Hakata Elementary School, which opened in April 2001 in a merger of four local schools, is particularly vulnerable to such attacks.

But in fact, school officials say the facility’s “openness” actually serves to boost security because it allows people outside the complex to watch school activities and enables teachers to keep an eye at all times on the 523 students there.

“While some schools have closed their gates and tightened security after the Ikeda incident, people can still climb over the gates if they want to,” Principal Hiroe Oshima said. “We try to increase security by having eyes everywhere.”

The school’s most glaring feature is the absence of doors or walls to separate classrooms, and many of the outer walls of the school building are made of tempered glass.

The design reflects requests by teachers and parents for open spaces and no faculty room, Oshima said, adding that the designer was aware that such steps would also increase security.

Although nearly a year has passed since the Ikeda massacre, the problem of how to keep children safe at schools continues to be a contentious one for parents and teachers.

Many parents feel somewhat more secure by actions taken by schools after the Ikeda incident, such as the installation of surveillance cameras and alarm systems, as well as only opening school gates when students arrive and leave, making teachers and visitors wear name tags and having faculty patrol school grounds.

But some teachers and parents have voiced concern that schools might become islands closed off from local communities and that such an environment may hamper children’s ability to study.

“The children’s job is to play outside. It’s a pity that we have to tell them to be careful of strangers and come straight home,” said Masaaki Shibata, a father of three from Chihaya-Akasaka, Osaka, and president of Eiwat Co., a manufacturer of renewable-energy equipment.

He often visits schools on business, and said there have been many times when he has felt that teachers were overly tense, especially soon after the Ikeda incident.

“Security is important, but it’s gone too far when you begin to suspect people,” he said.

Satoru Nagasawa, a professor of architecture at Toyo University, said turning schools into fortresses is not the answer.

“If you want to protect children only by buildings, a prisonlike structure will do. But you wouldn’t want your children to study in such a place, would you?” Nagasawa asked. “Safety is important, but there are other things that are important if children are to grow and become mature.”

Nagasawa is heading a team of experts set up in November by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry to compile a report on school security.

He has visited numerous schools in Japan and the United States.

“As a building plays only one part in protecting children, making an intruder feel that he or she is being watched can be a good deterrent. Hakata Elementary School is one such example of such deterrence,” Nagasawa said.

At Hakata Elementary School, each floor has an open communal space for teachers, as opposed to a staff room, enabling them to see students and making it easier for the children to talk to teachers during breaks.

None of the classrooms is located on the ground floor, and students enter their classrooms by using stairs from the playground.

“In case something happened in the classrooms, teachers can quickly get a good view (as no walls exist), and the stairs that go straight to the playground help pupils get outside very fast,” said Yoshiharu Kasahara, head teacher of the school.

The playground is sandwiched between the school building and a local public hall, so that it is in the view of both teachers and people attending events at the hall.

“Sometimes, local residents at the public hall call us, saying they saw strangers in the school,” Oshima said, adding that the school has strong connections with local residents through various municipal cultural events.

Not many schools have the means to undergo a physical makeover to resemble the Hakata school. However, they can take a leaf out of its book in terms of promoting endeavors to get the local community more involved in school activities.

Kayano Elementary School in Minoo, Osaka Prefecture, has been introducing various activities aimed at increasing involvement by local residents, including inviting people to give lectures and coach sports activities together with teachers. Some school facilities are open to local people on weekends.

“Some locals told us that protecting children is not just a job for teachers, but requires their monitoring as well,” said Ritsuko Yanai, the head teacher.

“And they are indeed doing what they said. We are very grateful for their efforts.”

Many experts point to the need to conduct emergency drills from time to time to renew general awareness of possible dangers, as these fears all too often fade with the passage of time.

Ikeda Principal Yoshio Yamane agrees, saying he is concerned that schools may be undergoing a declining sense of urgency about security.

“What happened at Ikeda is not an exception. Soon after the incident, many schools took various (security) steps,” Yamane told a recent news conference. “But I wonder what the current situation is?”

Together with local police and fire officials, Kayano Elementary School teachers conducted a drill on May 29 on the assumption that an intruder had stormed into a classroom.

During the drill, Yanai took the procedure of calling for ambulances, but it took a long time before she was able to receive accurate information on the number of people who were hurt, she said. The drill clarified the shortcomings of the school’s emergency program and what remedial steps need to be taken, Yanai said.

“There was such a big difference between reading the manual and actually doing it in a simulated situation,” she said. “The drill also helped us renew our sense of danger.”

Nagasawa of Toyo University said schools differ in terms of size, facilities, location, surrounding environment and history, and thus it is important for each school to draw up its own measures to increase security in cooperation with local residents.

“It is natural for measures to vary depending on each school,” Nagasawa said. “What is important is to have both the school and people in the local community share the idea that they are all involved in raising children.”

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