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Editorial: Ruling on schoolchildren's tsunami deaths highlights schools' responsibility

Teachers have a responsibility to swiftly and flexibly take action to protect the lives of their students without being bound by their assumptions about disasters, a court ruled on Oct. 26.

The Sendai District Court the same day ordered the Ishinomaki municipal and Miyagi prefectural governments to pay a total of roughly 1.4 billion yen in damages to the bereaved families of 23 students killed at Ishinomaki Municipal Okawa Elementary School in the March 11, 2011 tsunami. They were among the 74 children and 10 staff at the school who fell victim to the disaster. The plaintiffs had demanded 2.3 billion yen in compensation from the defendants.

The case marked the biggest loss of schoolchildren's lives to the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami at a single school. Japan, a disaster-prone country, must continue in its preparations to respond to natural disasters in the future.

It is a challenge for all schools across the country to consider how to protect the lives of their students in the event of a massive natural disaster. The latest ruling highlighted this heavy responsibility.

Shortly after the earthquake that struck on the afternoon of March 11, 2011, Okawa Elementary School ordered its children to stay in the schoolyard. At around 3:33 p.m., about 50 minutes after the temblor, students and the staff at the school began to flee to an area near a bridge over the Kitakami River, about 6 meters higher than the school grounds, when they were struck by the tsunami.

The bereaved families took legal action to find out why their children were engulfed by the tsunami waves without swiftly fleeing to a safer place. The municipal board of education interviewed surviving students about their evacuation after the earthquake, but subsequently discarded their hand-written notes.

The key points of contention during the trial were whether teachers could have predicted that tsunami waves would reach the school, about 4 kilometers away from the coast, and whether students and staff could have escaped from the tsunami.

The district court determined that the school could not have predicted that the tsunami would hit the school, pointing out that the school is outside an officially recognized tsunami danger zone on the city's hazard map, and that past tsunami had never reached the school.

However, the court noted that teachers had heard an official in a city loudspeaker vehicle warning that the area could be hit by a tsunami and calling on residents to flee to higher ground by around 3:30 p.m. The ruling concluded that at that point, teachers could have predicted a tsunami could strike the school, and that they had the responsibility to evacuate children to a safe area. The court pointed out that it was inappropriate for teachers to lead students to an area near a river, and concluded that the teachers should have taken them to a mountain behind the school, which the children had climbed as part of their school activities.

The ruling sided with the bereaved families' claim that the students should have evacuated to the mountain, apparently in consideration of the plaintiffs' feelings. One of the plaintiffs told reporters at a news conference, "I'm sure the children have heard the ruling under this blue sky."

Many people at various schools and workplaces lost their lives to the tsunami triggered by the magnitude-9.0 temblor, and the bereaved families of many of them filed damages suits to clarify the responsibility of those who managed the facilities.

The decisive factors in these suits were whether facility managers and those concerned gathered sufficient information and made rational judgments between the time of the earthquake and when the waves hit.

In a separate case where five children died at the private Hiyori Kindergarten in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, a court held the kindergarten manager responsible for the casualties. The judge pointed out that the kindergarten had had the pupils board a bus and taken them to lower ground in spite of the fact that the kindergarten was situated on a hill that was not hit by the tsunami. A high court-mediated settlement was subsequently reached.

Since these facilities care for the lives of children who cannot decide how to evacuate on their own, those who manage them have a particularly heavy responsibility. The same applies to care homes and hospitals for disabled and elderly people. One could say the latest ruling sounds an alarm bell to facilities looking after those vulnerable to natural disasters.

Over 600 students and school staff died in the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, including those at Okawa Elementary.

The School Health and Safety Act requires schools to compile disaster response manuals and obligates principals to keep students and staffers informed of the manuals' content, conduct disaster drills and take other necessary measures. However, the 2011 disaster highlighted differences between local bodies and schools in levels of efforts they make to that end.

Okawa Elementary School reviewed its disaster response measures in the 2010 school year and added a tsunami countermeasure. Nevertheless, the school failed to conduct evacuation drills and hand students over to their guardians in the event of a tsunami.

While the court awarded the plaintiffs damages, they are dissatisfied with the fact that the court did not uphold their claim that the school's preparedness for tsunamis was inadequate.

It goes without saying that schools should not rely solely on disaster response manuals. However, if schools are fully prepared for a natural disaster, each teacher can swiftly and flexibly respond.

Following the March 2011 disaster, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry reviewed schools' disaster response measures and their education on disaster prevention. It compiled a school disaster prevention manual and distributed copies to schools across the country.

The manual emphasizes that schools' disaster responses should be grounded in preparation, and advises schools to work out their own manuals to match their geographical conditions and environments.

Many schools have since improved their disaster preparedness. Specifically, schools situated in coastal areas have added tsunami responses to their disaster prevention manuals and introduced education on disaster prevention as part of their classes.

The latest ruling serves as a first step toward considering what schools should do to protect the lives of children.

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