The number of bullying cases nationwide at public and private schools from the elementary through high school level reached a record 543,933 in fiscal 2018, a 31 percent increase from the previous year. The education ministry sees the ever-growing number in a positive light — a result of its efforts to get school officials and teachers to actively identify bullying cases, including minor ones, at an early stage and take action to stop them from developing into serious matters.

However, the ministry’s data show that the number of bullying cases which developed into “grave situations” involving serious physical and psychological harm reached a record 602 cases, up 128 from the year before. Hundreds of students were forced into extended absences from school after being bullied by classmates. Of the 332 students who took their own lives — up by 82 from the year before — at least nine are confirmed to have been victims of bullying. Efforts need to continue to explore more effective ways to stop school bullying and its tragic consequences.

The 2013 law to promote measures to stop bullying was enacted in the wake of the 2011 suicide of a 13-year-old boy in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, who jumped to his death after being bullied by classmates at their municipal junior high school. The legislation was built on the lessons from the case, in which teachers and school officials took no action even though they were aware that the boy was being bullied — and came under fire for initially refusing to acknowledge that bullying was behind the suicide.

When a “grave situation” emerges as a result of bullying, the law requires schools and local boards of education to establish a third-party probe of the situation and report the findings to the bullying victims and their family. Speaking to the media recently, however, the father of the Otsu boy said the 2013 anti-bullying legislation has not been able to protect the lives of bullied children and called for more effective legal steps to save children from becoming victims. In a February ruling on a damages suit filed by the father, the Otsu District Court ordered the boy’s former classmates to pay ¥37.5 million in damages for the bullying that led to his suicide.

In fact, criticism is widespread that the current law against bullying is not serving its intended function. Moves by a group of lawmakers across party lines to amend the legislation to give it more teeth to combat bullying have hit a stalemate as people involved in the matter became divided over a proposal to punish teachers who fail to intervene after being alerted to suspected bullying. Some argue that such a provision would place too heavy a burden on the part of schoolteachers and officials.

In many cases, bullying victims and their families are left at odds with their school and local board of education over investigations into bullying. Many parents of victims who killed themselves criticize probes that deny links between bullying and suicide and call for new investigations, which often result in overturning the outcome of the initial probe.

In what police believe was a suicide, a 15-year-old boy in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, fell to his death from a condominium near his home last month. The boy had complained of being bullied when he attended a local municipal junior high school. He reportedly left a note in his room that criticized the local board of education for its probe of his case, charging that it tried to protect only the bullies.

According to the board’s probe, the boy began to be bullied by classmates and older students right after he entered the junior high school. After a plea to a teacher for help did not resolve the situation, he tried to kill himself three times — the last unsuccessful attempt leaving him seriously injured and temporarily wheelchair-bound. Only then did the school acknowledge the bullying against him, and the city’s board of education launched a third-party panel to probe the case. However, the panel reportedly did not hold any hearings involving the boy or his alleged bullies, and no session of the panel was held after the boy graduated from the junior high school in March.

Earlier this month, it surfaced that several teachers at an elementary school in Kobe had been persistently bullied by their colleagues at the school, causing one of them to stay home from work beginning in September. Media reports show that other colleagues of the victims turned a blind eye to the acts. Meanwhile, when one of the victims tried to consult with the principal of the school, he reportedly tried to hush the teacher up.

It’s horrifying to hear of such behavior by schoolteachers and officials who are supposed to stop bullying at schools. More effective ways must be found to hold bullies accountable and protect victims.

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