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Gov't expands 'school lawyer' system to combat bullying, lighten load on teachers

Lawyer Masaaki Ito, left, gives a lecture to high school teachers explaining how to educate students about bullying prevention and countermeasures, at the Mie Prefectural Government building in the capital city of Tsu, on July 26, 2018. (Mainichi)

At the start of the 2018 academic year in April, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology began testing an usual method to combat bullying, truancy and trouble with student guardians and lighten the burden on teachers -- dispatching "school lawyers" to some municipalities.

In order to work toward solving problems at schools between students or with students or parents, the goal is for the lawyer to be able to give legal advice. As for preventing the ever-present bullying issue, the dispatched lawyer would give catered lectures and visit the school to consult with teachers. The endeavor is hoped to serve as a new method of aiding students and lightening the already heavy burden carried by educators.

"Think about if this case could be considered as bullying," lawyer Masaaki Ito asked a group of high school teachers during a training session in the city of Tsu, Mie Prefecture, in central Japan in late July. The gathering was organized by the Mie Prefectural Board of Education and the Mie Bar Association, and attracted 73 teachers, to which Ito introduced examples of bullying via short skits.

After watching a skit where a student who has been shoved begins to cry, all of the teachers unanimously deemed that the incident was bullying. However, when the person playing the pushed student instead smiled silently, the number of teachers who could not decide if it was bullying or not rose. Ito emphasized, "Do not make a judgment based solely on what you saw -- it is necessary to ask the student how they feel," warning against letting a call for help go unnoticed because it was hidden by a smile.

"If the person in question feels that they were bullied, then that is already an infringement on their human rights," Ito continued, adding his legal knowledge. "Among the more serious examples, the bullying falls into the category of criminal defamation of character."

School lawyer activities began in Mie Prefecture in academic 2016. There had been a request from the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, and the Mie bar independently dispatched lawyers to elementary and junior high schools in the prefecture, offering catered lectures on how to prevent bullying. During the 2017 academic year, the prefecture was chosen for the education ministry's school lawyer research project, and the number of schools to which lawyers were dispatched grew to some 40 elementary and junior highs.

As a result, in a questionnaire distributed to the students, those who answered, "I clearly understand what bullying is" rose from 65.7 percent before the efforts to 90 percent, while those who answered, "There are things I can do to prevent bullying" also rose from 46.2 to 66.5 percent.

This academic year, the school lawyers began visiting schools in June for consultations. Educational materials for teachers based on the advice given by the lawyers were also made. The prefecture was divided into three zones, and a total of 20 lawyers registered for the project. If a request for legal help came from a school through the Mie Prefectural Board of Education, then a lawyer specifically qualified for the situation would be dispatched to the scene. The prefectural board pays for the services of the lawyers with the education ministry's project subsidies. There have already been three cases of consultation reported.

Like Mie, Oita Prefecture in southern Japan also made an agreement with the prefectural bar association in August concerning school lawyers under the direction of the ministry's research activities. The Oita Prefectural Board of Education had already received inquiries about the implementation of the school lawyer system from schools, but the legal lectures are planned to begin at the end of summer vacation around September at all public schools in the prefecture that wish to participate.

"By possessing knowledge concerning legal methods on how to deal with bullying, the problem can be prevented from deteriorating," explained Kaori Yamaguchi, head of the student guidance section of the Mie education board. "Dealing with problems with guardians and residents is becoming a cause of teachers working longer overtime hours, and this help from legal professionals will also lead to work-style reforms."

Lawyer Yoshihito Yamamoto, of the Mie Bar Association, said, "By actually setting foot on the grounds of a school, you can get a real feel for the school atmosphere and the root of the problem. I would like schools to not hesitate to come to us before the situation gets worse."

The idea for setting up the school lawyer system was first brought up in the first proposal by the central government's Council for the Implementation of Education Rebuilding in 2013. Faced with continued cases of gruesome bullying, it was hoped that by adding the legal perspective of lawyers to the mix, it would promote education that worked toward bullying prevention. In academic 2017, the Education Ministry began research survey activities in Mie and Oita prefectures and the city of Minoo in Osaka Prefecture. In academic 2018, which began in April, the survey including legal consultations began across all of Mie, Oita and Osaka prefectures.

With the introduction of the legal counsel, the education ministry is aiming for improving how bullying cases are dealt with in the early stages. There are many cases where incorrect handling of bullying situations, such as teachers dismissing student's claims as less serious and both schools and boards of education remaining silent about a situation, have ended up leading to serious consequences.

An act on promoting measures for the prevention of bullying was enacted in 2013. The law instructs schools to form a standing organization for the prevention of bullying, report to the police cases with the possibility of causing serious damage, and find out what happened and provide pertinent information to the victims. In reality, however, it is difficult to say that any of the measures have been implemented properly in schools.

"There are few teachers who completely understand the law," pointed out lawyer Akira Jinnai, known for pioneering the idea of school lawyers in Japan. "The most important thing is for teachers to share information with those around them so they do not have to deal with an issue alone." Jinnai also teaches social studies at the private Shukutoku Junior and Senior High School in Tokyo's Itabashi Ward. After passing the bar exam, he became Japan's first school lawyer there.

In his position, he consults with the principal and teachers about how they should handle issues they face at the school that have the possibility of developing into serious problems. This is not just limited to cases of bullying, but also truancy, accidents during afterschool club activities and situations where the school receives complaints from parents and guardians.

"Teachers can get peace of mind from consulting with a lawyer who has experience solving a variety of problems," said Jinnai. "With the expansion of the school lawyer system, it will also be interesting to see lawyers become more familiar with educational institutions."

(Japanese original by Takuya Izawa, City News Department)

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