The court ruling that ordered the city of Ishinomaki and Miyagi Prefecture to pay ¥1.4 billion in damages to the families of local schoolchildren killed in the tsunami of March 11, 2011, holds schoolteachers and officials responsible to take every step possible to protect children under their care in times of major disaster. The officials’ plea that the devastation caused by the massive tsunami that swept the Pacific coastline of Tohoku was well beyond anticipated disaster scenarios — thus beyond their responsibility to respond — was rejected by the court. Just as the Great East Japan Earthquake taught the nation, the ruling tells school authorities in this disaster-prone country to brace for the worst.
Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki was one of the worst-hit public facilities in the disaster five years ago, which left more than 18,000 people dead or missing. The school, located 4 km from the coast, lost 74 of its 108 students and 10 of its 13 teachers and officials in the tsunami that followed the magnitude-9.0 quake.
At issue in the lawsuit filed in 2014 by families of 23 of the children killed was the decision by teachers and officials to stay on the school ground after the quake for nearly 50 minutes before starting to evacuate to higher ground, when they were inundated by the massive tsunami. School officials said the onslaught of the tsunami was unpredictable, given that the school was located outside of the tsunami-risk areas on the hazard map prepared by local authorities and had in fact been designated by the city as an evacuation site. Indeed, some 70 schools in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures that stood outside tsunami-risk areas were hit by the tsunami that day.
The Sendai District Court ruled last week that teachers at the schools must have been able to foresee the tsunami reaching them when they heard the loudspeaker alert from a municipal government vehicle calling for evacuation to higher ground. The court said the teachers erred in their judgment when they chose to start evacuating the children in the direction of a riverbank, instead of a hill right behind the school, where the chance of escaping the tsunami would have been much higher. The city reportedly plans to appeal the ruling.
Following the March 2011 disaster, more than a dozen damages suits were filed by families of tsunami victims holding operators of schools and companies responsible for their deaths. In many of the cases where the schools or company premises stood outside areas where tsunami damage had been anticipated in local disaster scenarios, courts ruled against the plaintiffs on the grounds that it was difficult for operators of the facilities to predict the coming tsunami would reach them.
The Sendai court ruling seems to stand out in holding teachers of the Okawa school responsible to make the right decisions to lead the children to safety in the confusion following the quake. When schoolchildren are confronted with a disaster during school hours, they are bound by the judgments and instructions of their teachers. Therefore, the teachers bear a grave responsibility to take every possible step to protect the children in all conceivable situations. That will indeed be a tough challenge for operators of schools across the country, which can be hit by disasters ranging from earthquakes to tsunami. School officials and teachers will need to anticipate and prepare for the worst, by discussing disaster defense and evacuations, and regularly holding drills. That’s the least they can do to guard against a similar tragedy in the future.
A crucial step as we try to learn lessons from disasters is to look back on the sequence of events and judge whether steps taken and decisions made at each turn were appropriate. Families of the Okawa school victims are said to be frustrated that not enough efforts have been made to clarify and examine what happened at the school following the quake. The city of Ishinomaki reportedly flip-flopped in its explanation to the victims’ families about the fact that some of the children, while gathered at the school ground after the quake, told the teachers that they should escape up the hill. It also surfaced that a memo kept by the city’s board of education of its interviews with the children who survived the tsunami had been destroyed. A request by the plaintiffs for the sole surviving teacher of the disaster — who reportedly called for an evacuation to the hilltop — to testify in court was turned down due to objections by the defense. Holding the school and the local governments liable for damages alone should not be the end of the story.