Student suicides and ‘guidance’ by teachers

According to an education ministry report released last month, fiscal 2016 saw a record 324,000 cases of bullying reported at elementary, junior high and high schools. The sharp increase reflects the ministry’s policy of urging schools to pay attention to even minor cases that previously went unreported. Still, among them were 400 “grave” cases — an increase by 86 from the previous year — that caused serious physical or psychological damage to the victims. A total of 244 children killed themselves, including 10 who were found to have been bullied at school.

Teachers and education officials must pay sober attention to the fact that of the 244 children who killed themselves, at least three had troubled relationships with teachers. Although the victims in these three cases weren’t identified, the suicide of a 14-year-old junior high school boy in Ikeda, Fukui Prefecture, is likely among them. When children die this way, it is often called a “guidance death” because the irrational “guidance” that they are subjected to is believed to be a contributing factor to their decision to commit suicide.

An investigative panel of the Ikeda Municipal Government determined that the boy’s suicide was caused by being subjected to “persistent guidance” by two teachers. Such a problem rarely come to the surface because it mostly does not involve outright violence by the teachers. According to reports by schools to the education ministry, 13 students killed themselves between fiscal 2007 and 2015 because of problems they had with their teachers. Many experts say these figures represent just the tip of the iceberg.

The Ikeda town’s report noted that the victim, continually exposed to relentless guidance by the two teachers that included scolding, harbored a sense of isolation and hopelessness that deepened to the point where he felt he had no choice but to kill himself. Examples cited in the report include his classroom teacher yelling at him in October last year on the grounds that he was slow in his duty to organize a school marathon event; a rebuke by the deputy class teacher the following month for failing to submit his homework, in which the teacher refused to listen to the boy’s explanation; and another loud scolding by the classroom teacher in front of the teachers’ staff room early this year. The principal and the head teacher of the school witnessed the last scene, and had also been informed that the student had a problem with the deputy class teacher, but they took no action.

Since last year, the boy had been absent from school three times. He complained of his problems with the deputy class teacher to his mother. In March, the boy showed signs of a breathing problem when he was closely questioned by the deputy class teacher over homework. Neither the teacher nor the deputy teacher reported his condition to their superiors. The following day, the boy jumped to his death from the third floor of the school, leaving what appeared to be a suicide note.

It is deplorable that the principal, the head teacher and others at the school did not bother to raise the issue of the repeated scolding of the boy during a teachers’ meeting following his death. Questioning by the town’s investigative committee shows that most teachers did not think the behavior of the classroom and deputy class teachers were problematic. The deputy class teacher told the committee she did not understand why the student had to kill himself. In a news conference held right after the boy’s suicide, the principal said he did not know what caused the boy to take his own life. Only after the boy’s parents protested did the principal correct his statement and apologize.

What happened at the school suggests the teachers lacked an understanding that excessive scolding can have dire consequences. If the teachers kept quiet about the scolding to protect themselves, it makes a bad situation even worse. The teachers did not seem to have learned anything from an incident in 2012 in which the captain of a basketball team at a public high school in Osaka committed suicide after he was repeatedly subjected to corporal punishment and harsh language by a teacher in charge of the club.

The mother of the Ikeda student wrote that her son died because of “insidious bullying” by the two teachers. Teachers at other schools should not view this case as someone else’s problem. They should realize that the “guidance death” of schoolchildren puts the trustworthiness of schools and teachers in doubt.