Editorials

Lessons from the 2011 suicide of a bullying victim

In the wake of a court ruling last month ordering former junior high school classmates of a 13-year-old boy in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, to pay damages for their bullying that drove the boy to kill himself in 2011, education minister Masahiko Shibayama urged schools and boards of education across the country to proactively cooperate with investigations into bullying at schools and the suicides of bullying victims. That such a request has to be made more than seven years after the boy’s death indicates that the lessons of his case have not yet been sufficiently learned and that the purpose of the 2013 legislation enacted based on those lessons is not being fully shared among people responsible for combating the serious problem of bullying at schools.

Last month’s decision by the Otsu District Court was quite rare in that it recognized the causal link between the repeated bullying of the boy by his classmates and his suicide. Families of many of the school bullying victims who have killed themselves are reportedly frustrated with the difficulty in proving that the victims were driven to suicide by the bullying.

In the case of the boy in Otsu, officials of the junior high school were aware of his bullying by the classmates but took no action to stop the acts, and initially would not accept the bullying as the cause of his suicide after the boy jumped to his death in October 2011. After the school and the local board of education came under fire for their handling of the case, a law to promote efforts to prevent bullying was enacted and put in force in 2013.

Under the legislation, bullying that causes either serious physical or psychological damage to the victim, including a situation that results in forcing the victim to miss school for an extended period, is defined as a “grave case.” The school must report it to the education ministry and the local government, launch a third-party probe and inform the victim and the family about the facts that have been learned. The education ministry has urged schools to detect bullying cases — including minor ones — in their early stages and take action to prevent them from developing into serious situations. As a result, the number of bullying cases recognized by elementary to high schools across Japan has roughly doubled since 2013.

At the same time, schools and local boards of education are often accused of slow and inadequate responses to grave cases. Since 2013, at least 43 children have taken their own lives after being bullied at school. Shibayama’s request that schools and the boards of education submit relevant information — even that which is inconvenient for them — for the probe reflects the fact that some of them remain unwilling to disclose information pertaining to the bullying of the victims. That has often left the family of bullying victims who killed themselves at odds with the schools and boards of education over the causes of their children’s suicides.

In the April 2017 suicide of a 16-year-old boy at a private high school in Nagasaki, a third-party panel set up by the school has reportedly determined, on the basis of the victim’s diary and a questionnaire given to his classmates, that bullying by his fellow students was the primary cause that drove him to commit suicide. However, the school has informed the boy’s family that it would not accept the panel’s report. The school has yet to respond to the call in the panel’s report that it recognize the facts of the bullying and compile steps to prevent the recurrence of such cases.

In the suicide of a 13-year-old girl who complained of bullying at a junior high school in Aomori in August 2016, a panel launched by the city’s board of education initially concluded that the victim may have suffered from “adolescent depression” when she killed herself. Following a protest by her family, the same panel with new members last year filed a report that bullying by her classmates was the key reason behind her suicide. Many schools remain reluctant to recognize that their students took their own lives because of bullying at school. In the October 2016 suicide of a 14-year-old girl in Kobe, an official at the municipal board of education has been punished for covering up a memo based on interviews with her classmates that detailed how she had been bullied at the school.

If the schools are failing to take action to stop the bullying of children out of negligence, and if they are refusing to accept bullying as the cause of the victims’ suicide in order to evade their responsibility for the deaths, then they have not learned the lessons of the Otsu case in 2011. All parties responsible for combating the problem of bullying at schools need to be reminded of the purpose of the 2013 legislation against bullying.

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