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Friday, Aug. 17, 2012
Bullying back in focus, answers far off
Some blame student suicides on packed classrooms, call for overhaul
By MIZUHO AOKI
First of two parts Read part 2
Bullying at schools again came under the spotlight after details recently emerged of the shocking suicide of a 13-year-old boy in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, last year and the failure of the school and board of education to take action.
The junior high school conducted a survey of all its students shortly after the boy jumped to his death in October and the Otsu board of education closed the case the following month, concluding that bullying had taken place but that its connection to his suicide remained unknown.
In July, however, it was revealed that the board had withheld part of the student responses to the poll, including some stating the boy had been coerced by classmates to repeatedly "practice" killing himself.
"I feel that adults who have failed to confront the problem of child suicides due to relentless bullying share a deep responsibility" in such tragedies, said Midori Komori, 55, whose 15-year-old daughter killed herself in 1998 after being abused by classmates.
Just as in the Otsu case, the girl's high school initially refused to disclose the findings of a student survey it held after her death, Komori said, although it did release partial results later.
"I wonder if the government is really willing to reform" the way the issue is handled this time, she said.
Bullying at schools has repeatedly caught the public's attention since the mid-1980s, when the media started to heavily report about the suicides of students who had been tormented.
In response, the education ministry began a survey on the number of bullying cases starting in fiscal 1985. It also introduced school counselors to provide mental care for students in 1995 and created a 24-hour call center in 2007.
The number of reported cases of bullying in elementary, junior high and high schools fell from 124,898 in fiscal 2006 to 77,630 in 2010, a decline of some 62 percent, according to the education ministry. Yet deaths like the one in Otsu continue year after year.
Analysts say bullying is present in all societies and can't be completely eradicated. But they add that an escalation can be prevented by a more drastic approach to fundamentally alter classroom environments.
Asao Naito, an associate professor at Meiji University who has researched the issue for decades, said the current school system, under which 30 to 40 students are jammed into a single homeroom for the entire day, is behind the problem.
Unlike secondary schools in the United States and Britain, where students move from classroom to classroom every period for different subjects, teachers in Japan's junior high schools are the ones who are constantly on the go, based on the daily schedule.
By abolishing this system at junior high and some high schools and reporting cases of abuse to police, the incidence of abuse could be greatly reduced, according to Naito, who has interviewed many alleged bullies since the early 1990s during his research.
"Students are put into a homeroom and forced to spend most of the day with the same classmates in a confined space. In an environment where students are forced to spend almost all their time together, they live under their own set of rules that aren't always acceptable in society," he said.
Students tend to simply go along with the general atmosphere in the classroom and follow their classmates' lead to avoid standing out, Naito said, and if bullying is prevalent, then that is perceived as the normal course of action.
Even teachers are susceptible to the general mood of a class and can lose their usual sense of perspective, as was the case in a well-known tragedy that took place in 1986 at a junior high school in Tokyo.
In that incident, the bullying of Hirofumi Shikagawa, 13, escalated from being ordered to run errands to physical abuse and so-called funeral play, in which his classmates treated him as dead and placed flowers along with his portrait on the boy's desk. As part of the funeral play, even teachers wrote messages in a tribute "commemorating" his death, along with the students. Shikagawa hanged himself later that year, leaving a note describing his torment.
"The important thing is to teach your children that they are placed in a restricted space" and need to understand societal rules outside the school's boundaries, Naito argued.
He said physical abuse can be significantly cut by reporting incidents to the police, adding that both teachers and students have traditionally refrained from notifying the authorities because they consider their school a sacred community.
But without intervention by the police, students will obey whichever student calls the shots, often resulting in bullying of a classmate escalating, according to Naito.
"They should let students understand that if they engage in violence at school, they will be punished just like they would be on the outside, including being arrested or standing trial," he said.
When it comes to emotional and mental bullying, including ignoring or mocking the victims, Naito said that unless the homeroom system is replaced with a credit-based system that gives students the choice to move to different classrooms, like at universities, the problem won't be eradicated.
"There would be little chance for emotional abuse if there were no longer any fixed classrooms. . . . Think of a university: Even if you want to mentally abuse someone by ignoring them, it doesn't work and you simply end up not being friends with that person," Naito said.
"But at schools where students have no option but to try to get along with everyone, they lose the ability to control their emotional distance from their classmates. . . . When this ability is lost, mean words and giggling can hurt students by 100, 200 or even 1,000 times more than when the victims are in a normal mental state."
Changing the system, however, is not on the education ministry agenda.
Following the tragedy in Otsu, the ministry created an internal section Aug. 1 to tackle bullying and other incidents, including accidents, at elementary, junior high and high schools. It also ordered schools nationwide to conduct emergency surveys to uncover cases of students being abused.
The ministry plans to use the findings, which are due Sept. 20, to analyze and pursue a new policy on bullying, said Daisuke Saito, an official in the Elementary and Secondary Education Bureau.
Toru Kameda, general manager at the Center for Educational Management Studies of the PHP research institute, said schools, boards of education and the government should prioritize the issue and take concrete steps to ensure students can study in a safe environment.
"It's not just about a slogan. They need to pour manpower, time and money to solve (the abuse) problem," said Kameda, a former education ministry official. "It's wrong to spend money in other areas while the safety of students has not been established."
Kameda suggested that increasing the number of qualified teachers who act almost exclusively in a counseling capacity and devote all their time to assisting students to prevent or resolve bullying cases — such as through home visits to hear from parents — and supporting those who are falling behind in their studies, for example by sitting in on classes.
"Many schoolteachers are busy with their workload and club activities to take on such duties. So I believe we need teachers" who can act as counselors and devote their full attention to the issue, Kaeda said.
"Every time something (like the Otsu case) happens, media reports heat up for a while and then calm down again. But such tragedies take place year after year, so both the government and boards of education should place utmost daily priority on curbing bullying."