Editorials

Remind schools and teachers of duty to stop bullying

A suprapartisan group of lawmakers has compiled a draft amendment to the 2013 law promoting efforts to stop school bullying. The law requires schools to report serious cases of bullying to the education ministry and their local municipality, set up committees at schools and local boards of education to probe reported cases and explain investigation results to the victims and their families, so as to prevent the recurrence of bullying. The legislation, however, has not stopped serious bullying at schools from being repeated. Large numbers of victims have since taken their own life, while many of the victims’ families have been left frustrated as officials and teachers refused to link their suicides to bullying.

The amendment would explicitly prohibit teachers from failing to take action when bullying of their students is suspected, and subjects them to disciplinary punishment for negligence. Efforts to prevent bullying will be a mission for schools “equally important” to the actual teaching of coursework. The amendment will clarify the responsibility of school principals for such efforts, while a system will be considered in which each school has to appoint a teacher in charge of dealing with the bullying problem.

That such a revision is being proposed points to the law’s shortcomings. For the purpose of the law to be effectively served, teachers and school officials must first be reminded that it’s their duty to protect children from bullying — whether or not the law provides for punishment against dereliction of that duty.

In the October 2011 suicide of a 13-year-old boy in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, his classroom teacher had been informed by the victim that he was being bullied by classmates but failed to take action. The local board of education initially said it could not determine that the boy’s suicide had been caused by the bullying. After the boy’s family sued the city, a survey by the school of its students found that he had been bullied, and a third-party panel set up by the city acknowledged more than a year later that the bullying forced the boy to take his own life. The 2013 law was based on the lesson learned from this case.

According to the education ministry, a record 414,378 bullying cases were reported at public and private elementary, junior high and high schools across Japan in fiscal 2017, an increase of 91,235 from the previous year. The rise was attributed to efforts by the ministry to urge schools to recognize even minor cases of bullying and take effective action before the victims suffer serious harm. At the same time, “grave” cases in which victims sustained serious mental or physical damage, often being forced to stay away from school over an extended period, numbered 474, up 78 from fiscal 2016. Schools reported the suicides of 250 children, at least 10 of whom had been bullied.

Many of the grave cases raise doubts as to whether the mechanism installed by the 2013 law is adequately working to stop the serious bullying from being repeated. Victims and their families are left distrustful of school officials and boards of education when the schools fail to respond to their complaints of bullying — and when the probes by school boards deny a causal link between the suicide of the victims and bullying.

In the case of a junior high school girl in the city of Aomori who committed suicide in 2016, a panel set up by the local board of education said it could not determine that bullying was the direct cause of her death, noting that the victim might have suffered from adolescent depression. After her family disputed the findings, a re-investigation by new members of the panel found that bullying was the primary cause that cornered her into killing herself.

In the 2015 suicide of a junior high school girl in Toride, Ibaraki Prefecture, a decision by the local board that bullying of the victim did not constitute a “grave” case was overturned by the education ministry. In the 2016 suicide of a junior high school girl in Kobe, the board covered up a memo on hearings with students at her school hinting that the victim had been bullied. When a schoolgirl in Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture, attempted suicide in November last year and later complained that she had been bullied, the local board of education did not identify her case as a “grave” incident or promptly launch a third-party probe.

Bullying victims and their families suspect that schools and boards of education are trying to evade their responsibility for bullying. With or without an amendment to the law, teachers and school officials need to be reminded of their duty to protect the children from bullying and take adequate action to stop the problem.