Six years after a law on measures to stop bullying in schools was introduced, school officials and boards of education continue to come under criticism for inappropriate responses to bullying cases that have prompted the victims to take their own lives. We still see cases in which the lessons from the 2011 suicide of a junior high school boy in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, as a result of bullying by his classmates — which led to enactment of the legislation — do not appear to have been learned. Attempts by lawmakers to give more teeth to the efforts to stop bullying have stalled. It’s time to review if the anti-bullying measures under the law are serving their intended purpose.
In early June, a 14-year-old student at a junior high school in the city of Gifu fell to his death from a condominium after leaving a note hinting that he had been bullied by others at school. About a month earlier, a classmate handed a memo to their teacher charging that the victim was being bullied by other students. The teacher cautioned the students identified as bullies, but he did not share the information with senior officials at the school.
Concluding that the problem was resolved, the teacher then “lost” the memo — it was likely shredded. After the boy’s death, the school’s principal said the tragedy could have been prevented if the information about his bullying had been shared so the school could take organized action, and accused the teacher of not properly addressing the accusation made by the classmate.
The mother of a 13-year-old girl at a city-run junior high school in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, who committed suicide in December 2017 filed a damages suit against the municipal government last month, charging that the school neglected to take adequate steps against bullying of her daughter by fellow students. A third-party probe launched by the city’s board of education concluded in March that bullying by her classmates led to the girl’s suicide — and that a teacher in charge of her class had failed to take action when she complained of the bullying in a school survey.
On the other hand, many families of bullying victims who killed themselves are left dissatisfied with such probes by boards of education and file for re-investigation of their cases. In some of the cases, the conclusion of the initial investigation that there was no causal link between bullying and the victim’s suicide has been overturned, with school officials accused of covering up evidence of bullying.
The 2013 law to promote measures against bullying was enacted based on lessons from the 2011 suicide of the Otsu schoolboy, in which his school came under fire for not intervening to stop the boy’s torment even though its officials were aware of the problem, and for refusing to accept that the bullying cornered the victim into taking his own life.
The law requires teachers and officials to detect and stop bullying in its early stages. When bullying has resulted in “grave situations” in which the victim has suffered severe physical or psychological damage and has been forced into an extended absence from school, the school and local board of education are mandated to launch an independent probe and report relevant facts to the victims and their family.
As the education ministry urged schools nationwide to take steps against even minor cases of bullying, to prevent them from developing into serious situations, the number of bullying cases reported by schools has significantly increased. However, there remains a large number of cases in which the system to combat bullying under the law does not appear to be functioning as intended — as illustrated by the criticism often hurled against schools and boards of education by victims’ families.
To beef up the effectiveness of the anti-bullying measures, a group of lawmakers across party lines last year drafted an amendment to the 2013 law with an added provision that teachers and officials who learn of bullying at their schools but fail to take action would be subject to disciplinary punishment. In another draft released in April, however, that provision had been dropped out of concern that such requirements would place too heavy a burden on teachers and officials. When that angered families of bullying victims who had committed suicide, discussions on possible revisions to the law ground to a halt.
Whether or not the disciplinary measures are appropriate, it seems clear that serious cases of bullying continue to plague our schools, leading many victims into taking their own lives, despite the legislation that sought to prevent tragedies like the Otsu case. All parties involved need to think about what is lacking in the current efforts to stop bullying and help the victims, and explore what more can be done.