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Two recent student suicides due to bullying — one in the town of Chikuzen, Fukuoka Prefecture, and the other in the city of Takigawa, Hokkaido — have raised questions over the attitudes of educators. Teachers, principals, board of education officials and officials of the education ministry need to do some soul-searching and ask themselves whether they are consistently aware that bullying is a serious problem and whether they have squarely and sincerely dealt with it.

The education ministry may have been lulled into complacency by statistics submitted by local education authorities that reported no bullying-related suicides among students from fiscal 1999 through 2005. Local education authorities may have been trying to hide the truth in their reports to avoid trouble with the ministry. And the ministry may have neglected to take a closer look at the schools themselves. The least educators can do now is to unravel the details surrounding the two recent suicides and work on how to prevent such tragedies happening again.

On the night of Oct. 11, a 13-year-old second-year student at a Chikuzen junior high school was found to have hanged himself. In one of his four suicide notes, he wrote: “Bullying is so severe that I cannot live any more.” It is believed that the behavior of and certain comments made by a 47-year-old male teacher, who was the boy’s homeroom teacher when he was a first-year student, triggered the bullying of the boy by other students. On one occasion, when the boy picked up a classmate’s eraser that dropped onto the floor and handed it to the latter, the teacher called him a “hypocrite who cannot even become a hypocrite.”

Although it is uncertain why the teacher chose to call the boy a hypocrite, “hypocrite” later became an in-vogue derogatory word among students. When the boy’s parents consulted the teacher about the Internet content their boy chose to look at, the teacher disclosed the content of the parents’ conversation to his students. He also made fun of the boy by calling him a “liar.” The school principal said he believes that what the teacher did to the student served as a catalyst for the bullying.

The day after the boy’s death, the principal apologized to all the students at his school, saying that teachers failed to pay enough attention to small things and were forgetful about the violence some words can cause. His statement aptly points out problems that exist in the education system.

If the Chikuzen teacher’s actions were thoughtless and heartless, what a principal and the education board in Takigawa did to an elementary-school girl was equally unjust. In September 2005, the 12-year-old sixth grader hanged herself in her classroom and eventually died of her injuries in January 2006. She left seven suicide notes in the classroom. In one she wrote: “I felt that I was treated coldly by all my friends.” In another, she wrote: “I don’t know why but I have no one around me. I came to be discriminated against after I became a sixth grader. I came to be unable to believe anybody.”

When the bereaved family asked the education department chief of the city’s board of education to read the suicide notes, he refused to receive them. The school principal listened to the bereaved family read out the suicide notes and understood what had been written, but still the board of education insisted that the notes referred to nothing that indicated bullying had taken place. The board waited until Oct. 2 to make public the content of the suicide notes. And it wasn’t until Oct. 5 — after Education Minister Bunmei Ibuki said that the board should not bury the matter and the board received some 2,000 protest telephone calls and e-mail messages — that the board admitted that bullying had been behind the girl’s suicide.

Bullying is also believed to be responsible for the suicides of a ninth-grade junior high-school girl in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, in April 2005, and a seventh-grade junior high-school boy in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, in August 2006.

The National Policy Agency reported 165 cases of bullying-related violence by primary, junior high- and high-school students in 2005, the second highest figure in 10 years. The education ministry’s statistics show that the number of bullying cases at public elementary, junior high and senior high schools across the nation fell from a peak of 155,000 in fiscal 1985 to 20,000 in fiscal 2005.

But it should be kept in mind that bullying is not merely defined by violent incidents. Bullying can be inflicted through words and attitudes. Educators should open their eyes and search for bullying in places and situations where it may not be obvious at first glance. Perhaps teachers have too many tasks that draw their attention away from students. They should be allowed more time to listen to their students and help them deal with their problems.

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