AOMORI/MITO, IBARAKI – The parents of Naoko Nakashima, who killed herself at age 15, were furious at the type of questions asked by members of a third-party panel tasked with looking into their daughter’s death.
“They asked us questions as if the family was the cause” of the suicide, one of the family members said.
Most of the questions were about Naoko’s after-school lessons and her family environment instead of her school life.
The number of reported cases of bullying at elementary, junior high and high schools rose to a record 224,540 across Japan in fiscal 2015, up 36,468 from the previous year, according to an education ministry survey released last October.
Amid the rise, a new system that allows third-party panels to probe “grave” bullying cases was launched in line with a 2013 law. But the panels have at times clashed with family members over neutrality.
In Naoko’s case, in Toride, Ibaraki Prefecture, the panel was forced to disband in June before it completed its investigation. Her family requested that the panel shut down because they felt it was operating on the premise that no bullying had occurred.
Kazuhiro Sogabe, who was a member of the panel, said he did think there was bullying in Naoko’s case.
“Since a suicide usually involves multiple factors, we examined various aspects, and that may have resulted in disagreements,” said Sogabe, a professor of school clinical psychology at Shirayuri University.
Efforts to get to the bottom of Naoko’s death didn’t start off well in the first place.
Following her November 2015 death, a diary entry was found saying she “didn’t want to be bullied.”
But the Toride Board of Education, which interviewed her classmates, concluded in March 2016 that there was no evidence she had been bullied. The board, however, retracted the decision after the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology ordered a review of the case.
The board-commissioned third-party panel of six members, including education and legal experts, began its probe in July 2016 only to be disbanded a year later.
The parents now want the Ibaraki Prefectural Board of Education to set up a separate panel.
Naoko’s father Takanobu Nakashima told reporters after making the request that he hopes a new panel “will set its eyes on Naoko herself.”
Another third-party panel was looking into the suicide last August of 13-year-old Rima Kasai, a junior high school student from the city of Aomori. She left a note on her smartphone saying she “could not stand being bullied.”
The panel showed a draft report to her family in April saying that while her death involved bullying, it could not be determined that it was the direct cause of her suicide and that she suffered from juvenile depression.
Dissatisfied with the draft, the family asked the panel to replace two psychiatrists on the panel. They said one of them had previously judged in a separate case that a girl had taken her own life due to multiple reasons, including an eating disorder.
“The panel should be an independent entity, but I can’t help but conclude that the board only selected members who would make a convenient decision,” said her father, Go Kasai.
The Aomori Municipal Board of Education refused to replace the members. And the panel ended its term in May, unable to release a final report as it couldn’t get the consent of the family. The board plans to choose a new panel with members from outside the prefecture.
The cases underline how difficult it is for municipal officials to handle suicide cases.
A ministry guideline requires that the panels to be impartial, supportive of children’s next of kin, keeping them updated on their process. To ease concerns, education ministry officials plan to visit regional governments to offer advice on how to work on such sensitive matters.
“It would be a serious problem if a panel hurt a bereaved family and lost their trust,” a ministry official said.
Tomomi Homma, a professor of clinical psychology at Kyoto University of Education, said the panel system currently lacks know-how and is apparently “still in a trial-and-error phase.”
Noting that such panels, unlike the police, have no legal force behind their investigations, Homma said, “Trust with anyone interviewed (by the panel members) is indispensable.”
The key for gaining trust would be selecting panel members with no existing interest in the case, he said.
Midori Komori, head of Gentle Heart Project, a nonprofit organization working to stop school bullying, said experts on school bullying should also be included on the panels.