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Thursday, May 20, 2004

MATTER OF COURSE

SAFE STREETS, FEARFUL PARENTS

Schools sounding false alarms over child safety


A few weeks ago my younger son came home from school all excited. "Mom! Guess what?" he shouted from the entranceway as he kicked off his shoes. "The ku gave us a gohan buza!" I had been hard at work on an article and was a little slow making the transition to his eclectic mix of languages. Why would the ward give us a "rice buzzer?," I wondered. I've already got a timer on my automatic rice cooker.

I went to the door. "Um . . . what's a gohan buza?" My son stared at me, rendered momentarily speechless by this further piece of evidence that his mother is a dimwit. "Mo-omm!" he groaned. "I didn't say 'gohan.' I said 'bohan!' "

Oh. Bohan. As in, "anti-crime." Right, I knew that.

My son proudly demonstrated for me his new acquisition, a personal security alarm marketed specifically for Japanese schoolchildren. When you're 9 years old, model numbers are cool, so he was sure to point out that it was a BS-987 Nattaro. I watched him think for a moment. "You might translate that as 'Screamin' Billy,' " he offered helpfully.

The BS-987 Nattaro personal alarm is a turquoise oval, a little smaller than a hen's egg. It hangs on a yellow cord. If you pull on the cord you yank a pin out of the egg, setting off a 110-db alarm. That's very loud, at least if you're standing indoors right next to the source.

A handout explained that our board of education had purchased alarms for every elementary and middle school student. The kids were instructed to attach the alarm to their backpack when they walk to and from school, and wear it around their neck when they are out playing. If someone threatens them, they can set off the alarm to call for help.

I did some research and learned that communities all over Japan are buying personal security alarms for school kids, creating a huge shortage. Demand surged at the end of last year after a man approached a sixth-grade girl walking home from school and tried to make her go with him. That case, in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, generated sensational news coverage and prompted schools to implement new security measures, such as parent-based safety patrols.

My son was happy to get something for free, particularly something that makes a lot of noise. But I'm not pleased at all. First off, I doubt many kids will have the presence of mind in an emergency to reach for the buzzer. Or if they do, that it will actually be within reach.

I've been surveying my kid's friends to see where they keep their alarms. His best buddy Kenji keeps his in his pocket, under gum wrappers and rubber bands and pencil stubs, all of which had to come out before he produced the alarm. The girl downstairs keeps hers inside her school satchel, inconveniently buckled away under the stiff leather flap. My own kid stopped carrying his after three days because it fell off his backpack every time he ran. "The alarm would go off and everyone would look at me," he complained. "I felt like okami shonen ('The Boy who Cried Wolf')."

I also have concerns about cost. Tokyo's Ota Ward, for example, spent 40 million yen to purchase 60,000 buzzers for its elementary and middle school children. My guess is that the money would have been better spent on something else, such as safety education programs.

But my biggest objection is that this will make parents panic. I'm afraid they'll think Japan must have become really dangerous if schools have to buy alarms for students.

Here's my perspective as an American who moved to Japan when her children were 5 and 8. One of the big advantages of living in Japan is that you can let your children run free. It's perfectly normal here for first-graders to commute to school on their own. To play outdoors without supervision. To walk to the store by themselves.

That's the way it was in the United States when I grew up. But things had changed by the time I had kids of my own. Their elementary school was less than a mile away, but no one walked to school. Parents took their children to the school bus stop and waited until they were safely on board. Or they drove them to school themselves. There was a nice park nearby but parents wouldn't let their kids go there on their own. When my sons' friends visited, a parent would bring them even if they lived only a block away.

That level of vigilance didn't make sense to me. Our neighborhood was safe. In fact, it was very much like the neighborhood in which I grew up. What had changed, I think, was that there was more sensational news coverage about crimes against children. It made parents fearful. The social expectation had become that good parents supervise their children at all times.

Then we moved to Japan. As soon as my boys knew the neighborhood and a little Japanese, I gave them the same freedom Japanese kids enjoy. It was a relief not to have to accompany them everywhere. And it was wonderful to watch them develop confidence and independence.

I talked about all this with my friend Izumi, who thinks I'm overreacting to the buzzers. "They're nothing more than mamori," she asserted, referring to the pre-blessed safety charms you can buy at any Shinto shrine. "Bureaucrats order the alarms to protect themselves against charges that they didn't do anything to keep kids safe. And parents figure that as long as their kids have alarms, it's safe to let them do what they usually do."

I hope she's right. But in the four years we've lived in Tokyo, I've seen parents become more fearful. Moms bring up safety more often during school meetings. Parents seem less comfortable letting their kids go places on their own.

Fear is contagious. If one mom gets spooked about her daughter walking to ballet class, other moms will be forced to worry. Gee, maybe only bad moms let their daughters walk to ballet class! And when fewer kids are out, the streets feel less safe. Pretty soon we've got another society where kids can't go anywhere without a parent.

That's what I find truly alarming.



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