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School fails to act on serious bullying for over half year after student's pants pulled off

HIROSHIMA -- A 15-year-old student in Hiroshima Prefecture became unable to attend school after bullies held him down and pulled off his underwear, but in spite of complaints, his school did not treat the incident as serious for over half a year or launch a third party probe.

The case has sparked criticism from experts that the junior high school in the city of Kure in western Japan was too slow to act. Government guidelines state that if there is a complaint from the victim, the school must conduct an investigation and report the case to the city's education board on the premise that it was a serious situation. Having one's underwear forcibly taken off is specifically cited as an example of such a situation.

According to the student, people including his grandfather, who is his guardian, as well as the Hiroshima Prefectural Board of Education, the boy faced bullying from his first year at the school -- for example his shirt and pants were ripped by classmates. On three occasions in late November 2017, when the boy was a second-year student, he was pushed to the floor in the classroom by four to six classmates during the lunch break and had his trousers and underwear pulled off as his hands and feet were held down.

From late April last year, the victim temporarily became unable to attend school and in June the same year he was diagnosed as suffering from anxiety and sleep disorders, for which he is still undergoing treatment.

"I couldn't sleep, and it became tough for me to see the faces of my classmates and teacher," the student said.

Immediately after the bullying in November 2017, the student's grandfather requested an investigation, saying the teen had suffered serious damage. The school questioned his classmates but did not inform him of the results, and simply maintained that it was part of a group "punishment game," which a person who lost in some kind of competition had to play.

Tearfully recalling the response, the student said he felt that the school was treating the bullying lightly. The school reportedly told parties including the boy's grandfather that his classmates were just being playful when ripping his shirt and pulling underwear off was an "in thing" at the time.

In November last year, the city's education board notified the boy's guardians that the board would conduct a renewed investigation of the bulling as a "serious situation." The school finally determined in February this year that it was a serious situation, and vowed to set up a third party panel. When asked why the school had not done so earlier, officials including the principal are said to have explained that "an investigation would be a burden for the victimized student," among other reasons.

Government guidelines on bullying define a serious situation as one in which bullying has caused major damage to the student's life, mind, body or possessions, or when there are suspicions that it has forced a student to become absent. As an example, the guidelines specifically list a case in which a student's trousers and underwear were stripped off in front of many other students. If there is a complaint from the child or their guardians, the guidelines state that the situation should be treated as serious regardless of the school's decision.

When approached by the Mainichi Shimbun, the Kure Municipal Board of Education said it was unable to comment from the perspective of "protection of privacy and educational consideration."

The student had been mostly away from school until the graduation ceremony this month, but he now has a goal to perform in club activities in high school, which has become his emotional support. He said he wants the junior high school to conduct a proper investigation and understand that bullying actually occurred.

(Japanese original by Misa Koyama, Hiroshima Bureau)

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