How a school tried to cover up suicide probe

opinion June 13, 2018 01:00

By Yomiuri Shimbun
Asia News Network

In 2016, a third-year female student at a municipal junior high school in Kobe, Japan committed suicide. She had been bullied. Soon after her death, the school questioned several of the girl’s classmates to gather information about her friendships and other details, and compiled memos containing this information.

A senior official of the Kobe Municipal Board of Education instructed the school principal to conceal the existence of the memos from the girl’s family. The principal agreed to this plan and forbade the school’s teachers from mentioning the memos, saying the documents “would be treated as something that don’t exist”. The ruse, which continued even while a third-party committee was investigating the case, violated an order by the Kobe District Court to preserve evidence.

It is said that in August 2017, the head of the board of education and other officials reportedly also became aware that the memos existed, but did not take any further action. This effectively means the board of education and school, which should have clarified the causes of the student’s suicide, hampered the core part of the investigation. This is outrageous.

Following a request by the bereaved family, the board of education asked lawyers to once again examine whether the memos existed. As a result, the cover-up was finally revealed this month. The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry was quite right to demand consideration of punitive measures for officials involved in the deception and a review of the organisational structure that allowed it to happen.

If the memos’ existence had become public, it would have led to cumbersome paperwork such as dealing with requests for information to be disclosed. The investigative report surmises this was the cause of the cover-up. If this is indeed true, it was an act that injured even the dignity of the female student who died.

There has been no end to cases in which parents and caregivers distrust the responses and investigations by boards of education and schools regarding “serious situations” arising from bullying, in which there is significant harm to a student’s life or their mental and physical well-being.

Japan’s law promoting measures to prevent bullying stipulates that an investigation must be swiftly conducted when such a serious situation occurs. Last year, the education ministry drew up guidelines spelling out how these investigations should be conducted and their findings reported. The ministry urges boards of education and schools to appropriately deal with such bullying cases.

An approach that takes an objective perspective to pinpoint the facts as much as possible and takes steps to prevent a recurrence is required on the front lines of education. Whether bullying cases can be dealt with in line with the guidelines also should be reexamined.

In autumn, the ministry will establish a new specialist position that will deal with cases such as suicide caused by bullying. This post’s main duties will include quickly visiting the victim’s school and the relevant board of education, and offering guidance on what steps to take. There are hopes this post will function effectively, such as by offering advice on the selection of personnel to sit on a committee investigating the cause of a student’s suicide.

In the 2016 academic year, the number of reported bullying cases at elementary, junior high, high and other schools in Japan reached a record high of 323,143 cases. Of them, 396 were deemed to be “serious situations”, and 10 students who had been bullied committed suicide.

A belief in not rocking the boat and trying to trivialise bullying cases as much as possible must be stamped out at schools and boards of education. This will be the most important thing for grasping the true state of bullying in schools.