Commentary / Japan

No wide agreement on how to handle bullying

by Walt Gardner

Special To The Japan Times

Despite the widely acknowledged harm that bullying causes, policies vary dramatically from one country to another. Japan and the United States serve as cases in point.

Recognizing that the existence of a law requiring schools to take action to stop bullying has been largely ineffective, the education ministry proposed that bullies would have to demonstrate a three-month absence of offensive behavior before the case against them could be resolved.

By doing so, the ministry is taking the first step toward a stiffer approach. A mere apology alone would not be enough. Victims would also have to provide evidence that they are physically and mentally recuperated.

Japan’s tougher stance is the result of data showing that bullying in elementary school as well as in junior and senior high schools persists. For example, in fiscal 2015, bullying hit a record 224,540 cases, an increase of 36,468 from the previous year. Nine students who had been bullied that year committed suicide.

Part of the blame is attributed to vague rules about bullying that led to varying responses by schools. Determined to clarify matters, the ministry rightly has stepped in.

Although bullying is a problem in the U.S. as well, almost all states allow school districts to establish their own policies. Not surprisingly, this has led to a crazy quilt situation.

For example, New York City’s Department of Education said it would significantly reduce suspensions for children in kindergarten through second grade. It would permit such removals only when children repeatedly behaved in ways that were violent, could cause serious harm or violated federal law against bringing guns to school.

Other school districts across the U.S. have different policies. The trend in most, however, is toward so-called “restorative practices,” which tries to have students assume responsibility for their misbehavior and repair the harm done.

This approach has been criticized for letting miscreants escape the consequences of their action. That’s why Japan’s proposed three-month, clean- record rule is far more defensible.

But a better way for both Japan and the U.S. to handle bullying is to intervene before the problem occurs. Counseling can then be used to avoid the need for more drastic measures. This strategy is referred to as “therapeutic crisis intervention.” It has been credited with reducing suspensions in the New York City system from 44,626 in the 2014-15 school year to 37,647 in the 2015-16 school year, a drop of 15.6 percent.

For elementary school children in particular, this approach is most promising because it has the potential to nip the problem in the bud before it becomes a habit. Bullying in the U.S. starts as early as first grade and peaks in middle school. According to the National Academy of Sciences report released in May 2016, most children don’t report bullying to their teachers or their parents because of fear of embarrassment and retaliation.

If the same pattern exists in Japan, it’s further reason why teachers have to be extra vigilant. By stepping in at the first sign of bullying, teachers take the onus off children. For example, bullying in elementary schools in Japan was up by 28,456 to a record 151,190 in the 12 months through March 2016.

Children in both Japan and the U.S. face enough pressure today without having to contend with bullying. Assuming it is merely a rite of passage can have tragic outcomes, as the number of suicides most dramatically illustrates.

Walt Gardner taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 28 years. He writes the Reality Check blog.

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