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Editorial: Information-sharing the key to tackling bullying

The number of known bullying cases at elementary, junior high and high schools and special-needs schools in Japan last academic year rose to a record high of 224,540, according to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. The figure, counting cases confirmed by teachers and others at schools across the nation, represented nearly a 20 percent increase from the 2014 school year.

The ministry has said that, to help get an accurate view of the problem, reports of large numbers of bullying cases will not be used to drop its evaluations of schools or teachers, but rather be viewed as part of an active effort to combat bullying.

The record number of cases can accordingly be seen as the result of efforts by teachers and other school workers to bring bullying incidents to light. Still, we hope that educators will always keep in mind the underlying existence of bullying and be sensitive about the roots of the problem and the distress signals sent out by victims.

While school bullying surveys have been probing deeper, still the number of cases per thousand in the prefecture with the highest reported incidence of bullying was 26 times greater than that of the prefecture with the lowest. Furthermore, nearly 40 percent of schools said they did not find even one case of bullying over the course of a year. Differing views on what constitutes bullying is probably a factor in this. The education ministry maintains that its survey still does not reflect the actual situation.

In the meantime, there remain many outstanding issues with measures to rescue children from harassment and to solve the problem of bulling.

Following the 2011 suicide of a junior high school boy in the Shiga Prefecture city of Otsu, Japan enacted a bullying prevention law in fiscal 2013. The act obligates administrative bodies and schools to make efforts to prevent bullying and to provide a support system.

However, according to the ministry, 23 children suffering from bullying took their own lives between the 2013 and 2015 academic years, and making improvements to the situation appears difficult.

A pillar of the law is that schools are supposed to determine basic guidelines on suicide prevention themselves and establish bodies handling countermeasures that are to have a central function. Under such a system, information on individual bullying cases is collected, school workers share the information, and an organizational response is formed. It prevents a single person having to deal with the problem alone.

Information-sharing is the key, but there have been quite a few cases where this has been lacking. For example, a junior high school boy in Iwate Prefecture who killed himself had written about his tough experience of being bullied and hinted that he would take his own life in a notebook he exchanged with his teacher, but the information was not shared.

Though there may be a law, guidelines and organizational structure to address the issue, they are not functioning sufficiently. A ministry panel of experts which is aware of this and has been discussing improvements has suggested that each school set a target to combat the problem. The suggestion is to have schools formulate plans on how they will tackle the problems throughout the year, and using schools' achievement levels as a factor in their evaluations.

However, as has been pointed out repeatedly in the past, the work pressure that teachers face has been a major hindrance in information sharing. To achieve successful measures, it is essential to implement financial measures and support, for example by placing teachers specializing in the problem of bullying in schools and enriching counselling programs.

Bullying can happen to anyone, anywhere. Starting out with that perception, we hope to see measures implemented not only in form but in substance.

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