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The successive murders of two first-grade elementary schoolgirls in Hiroshima and Tochigi prefectures who went missing on their way home from school have sent alarm bells ringing across the nation. The brutal killings have raised security concerns particularly among parents with children of similar ages, highlighting an urgent need to protect schoolchildren from danger on their routes to and from school.

It appears that the long-held “safety myth” about Japanese society is collapsing like a house of cards. About a year ago, in November 2004, a first grader who attended an elementary school in Nara Prefecture was also murdered on her way home. The question in everyone’s mind is why young innocent schoolgirls have been targeted.

The future of our schools and education, and of our society as a whole, is bleak if the safety of schoolchildren is not guaranteed. Now is the time to consider how to establish effective safety measures for them. Schools and communities must take the lead in working out concrete ways to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents.

Already communities throughout the country are moving in this direction. Since the slayings in Nara and elsewhere, local authorities and groups have launched various programs to protect children on their routes to and from school. For example, in an effort to increase safety consciousness among children, schools in some communities have made students draw up regional safety maps for themselves. Children in some other areas carry a buzzer that beeps when walking through a dangerous area. Students in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, carry an electronic hand-held device that can alert police when they are in imminent danger. Children also have been instructed to take other steps to defend themselves, such as shouting for help when they are in danger of being kidnapped.

The central government, alarmed by the latest incidents, has requested that schools take stronger action to ensure safety on the routes that are regularly taken by children. Mr. Kenji Kosaka, the education and science minister, has indicated that the ministry will consider a program to set up anticrime video cameras in dangerous places. Such measures, however, may not be fully effective against would-be criminals bent on molesting or killing unguarded schoolchildren. First graders are particularly vulnerable. It needs to be recognized that self-defensive measures have limited effectiveness.

There is one sure way, though, to protect younger students: Have parents escort them from their homes right to the school gates. In some communities, elderly volunteers are doing just that on behalf of parents. It may be difficult, however, to protect all children in this way on a regular basis.

Perhaps it is time to consider using school buses for elementary school students, in the same way that they are being used for kindergarten pupils. Such transportation seems particularly needed for students in the lowest grades, who physically do not differ much from kindergarteners. Indeed, introducing a school-bus system for elementary schoolchildren is a practical idea as safety can no longer be taken for granted.

In the United States, children are normally protected on their way to and from school. Protection is provided by school buses or private cars or by escorting parents. In all cases, it is generally agreed that adults should be responsible for the safety of schoolchildren.

Here in Japan, local governments — which are responsible for the establishment and management of public schools in their districts — should take the initiative. There are budgetary limitations, to be sure, but the safety of children should not be sacrificed on the budgetary altar.

There is also much to be done by the central government. At present, half the cost of purchasing school buses is paid by the state, but this applies only to schools in sparsely populated or administratively integrated districts where children must travel long distances to attend school. The eligibility standards for this subsidy should be relaxed to cover schools in urban areas as well.

Criminals that target unprotected children appear to have a distorted mind-set that makes it difficult for them to deal squarely with adult members of society. A sense of “victimhood” is likely to spread in our society as the mentality of “the survival of the fittest” gains ground. As a result, more children could become a target of crime. In such circumstances, adults are all the more responsible for the safety of children. It is a responsibility that must be fulfilled at all costs.

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