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Editorial: High court ruling on 2011 tsunami deaths a warning to schools nationwide

A recent ruling handed down by the Sendai High Court in Miyagi Prefecture over a civil lawsuit is one that acknowledges the weight of a school's responsibility to protect the lives of its students in the event of a disaster.

The court ordered the Ishinomaki Municipal Government and the Miyagi Prefectural Government to pay over 1.4 billion yen in damages to the bereaved families of 23 of the 84 students and staff at Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture who perished in the tsunami that followed the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

The ruling explicitly pointed to systematic ill-preparedness among the school principal, vice principal, the curriculum coordinator and other school leaders.

The latest ruling goes even further in placing the blame on school and local government authorities than the lower court's decision, which only recognized the judgment error made by teachers who, upon learning that a tsunami was imminent, led students to evacuate to an area different from the hill behind the school, where the students and staff could have avoided being swept away by the wave.

The School Health and Safety Act seeks that all schools develop guidelines on what actions to take in case of dangerous situations such as natural disasters. The Ishinomaki Municipal Board of Education had asked all schools under its jurisdiction to draw up crisis management manuals by April 2010 in preparation for earthquakes that could strike off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture.

The Ishinomaki Municipal Government's disaster plan at the time predicted that dikes may be destroyed in a large quake, leading rivers to overflow and flood surrounding areas.

What Okawa Elementary School's principal and other school leaders should have done was come up with safety measures on the assumption that tsunami would hit the area, but the school manual merely noted that in the case of tsunami, the school's students and staff would evacuate to "open lots or parks nearby," and no specific escape routes or sites were included in the manual. The Sendai High Court therefore ruled that the principal and other school leaders neglected to fulfill their responsibility to establish adequate safety measures.

While the Ishinomaki Municipal Government had a disaster prevention plan, according to a hazard map drawn up by the municipal government, Okawa Elementary School was located outside the zone predicted to be immersed in water. The municipal government used this as the basis for its claim that it could not have predicted that the school would be hit by tsunami. The presiding judge, however, rejected the claim, saying that the school leadership should have scrutinized the reliability of the hazard map with much more expertise than the average resident, as they were directly responsible for the lives of many students.

There will always be unexpected elements when it comes to disasters. We must once again acknowledge that hazard maps are mere guides with limitations to what they can offer.

The latest ruling has a great impact on schools nationwide. It prompts schools to reconsider their disaster prevention measures, to ask themselves whether they are adequately prepared to protect the lives of their students, and take into full consideration the location and topography of the school grounds and surrounding areas.

Because schools commonly serve as a base where local residents can gather for shelter and information in times of disaster, it is important for schools not only to develop thorough crisis management manuals, but also to conduct disaster drills along with local communities. Efforts must be made at schools across the country so as to never repeat the tragedy that occurred at Okawa Elementary School.

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