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Three years after the introduction of a law requiring schools to take action to stop the bullying of students, the problem appears to be as serious as ever. The number of reported cases of bullying at elementary, junior high and high schools nationwide hit a record 224,540 in fiscal 2015, and nine of the students who committed suicide that year had been bullied. A government council on the issue has urged the education ministry to revamp the measures taken under the law, including requiring schoolteachers to make the prevention of bullying and suicides by bullying victims a priority in their daily work. Teachers and officials at schools need to be aware that it’s their actions that help stop the problem, not the introduction of new laws or rules.

What prompted the 2013 law was the case of a 13-year-old boy in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, who jumped to his death in 2011 after being bullied by classmates. The law made it mandatory for each school to establish a basic policy to prevent bullying and set up an in-house organ to deal with the problem. Cases of bullying in which the victims suffered serious physical or psychological damage — and were forced, for example, to be absent from classes over an extended period — are defined as “grave situations” and require schools and local boards of education to launch an organized probe when they learn of such cases.

A junior high school in Yahaba, Iwate Prefecture, which was attended by a 13-year-old student who killed himself by jumping in front of an oncoming train in July last year, had established an anti-bullying policy and a relevant section as required by the law. The boy submitted a notebook to his homeroom teacher detailing the repeated violence he suffered at the hands of classmates, but the teacher failed to share this information with other teachers and officials so the school was unable to make an organized response to his problem. Weeks after his death, the school compiled a report that blamed his suicide on the bullying and the local education board launched a third-party probe to look into the case. This case shows that mere compliance with the letter of the law does not guarantee that individual bullying problems will be properly addressed in time to prevent tragic outcomes.

The education ministry attributes the record number of reported cases of bullying in fiscal 2015 — which represented an increase of 36,468 cases from the previous year — to efforts by schools to uncover more bullying incidents. The number has in fact been rising sharply since the education ministry urged schools and boards of education to report even minor cases of bullying after the 2011 suicide of the Shiga boy led to severe public criticism of his school’s poor response to his case. But that suggests that far too many cases of bullying had previously been overlooked by the teachers and schools.

The ministry’s data points to a huge regional disparity in the number of reported cases per 1,000 population. Kyoto Prefecture had the largest number of 90.6 cases as opposed to the smallest number in Saga Prefecture — just 3.5 cases. The gap between prefectures with the largest and smallest numbers narrowed from 30.5 to 1 last year to nearly 26 to 1 — but it is still a huge discrepancy.

The government’s council views such disparity as evidence there is a huge gap among regions, schools and teachers in the way they see what constitutes acts of bullying, what cases are “grave” and the criteria they use to judge that bullying cases are “resolved.” While the education ministry probe shows that 89 percent of the reported bullying cases in fiscal 2015 have since been “resolved,” experts point out that some cases of bullying are deemed resolved when the bullies have apologized to their victims, without the school confirming if the problems have really ended or providing follow-up care for the victims.

The council considers the definition of a “grave situation” of bullying requiring action by the schools to be so vague that it leaves each of the schools and teachers to make varying responses, and is urging the ministry to clarify the definition — by citing concrete examples — and set a guideline for the probes by each school. A clearer criteria for action will help prod teachers and officials who may hesitate to intervene for various reasons. What’s more important will be a broader recognition by teachers and school officials that it’s their duty to detect signs of bullying at an early stage and take prompt action to stop it.

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