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Preventing, resolving bullying, urging teacher vigilance still big challenge for schools

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry is seen in this file photo taken in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on July 26, 2018. (Mainichi/Naoaki Hasegawa)

TOKYO -- The number of reported bullying incidents across Japan's schools hit a record high at more than 410,000 cases in fiscal 2017, and examination of the annual government survey released on Oct. 25 highlights the difficulty of preventing bullying and ensuring teacher vigilance.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, which carries out the survey, does not consider the high figures across elementary, junior high, high schools and special needs schools as necessarily a bad sign, as it deems spotting bullying and its early signs is an important first step in tackling the problem.

This is part of the reason why the ministry included instruction that even fights and playful acts need to be thoroughly examined in its bullying prevention guidelines, as these actions could be contributing factors behind the bullying issue.

Settled bullying cases reached 85.8 percent of reports in fiscal 2017 that ended in March 2018, according to the ministry. However, some of the cases that have been deemed "settled" by schools have developed into more serious cases. One such example is the November 2017 suicide of an 11-year-old girl in the city of Tsurugashima, Saitama Prefecture, just north of Tokyo.

According to the Tsurugashima Municipal Board of Education and others, the girl transferred to a local elementary school in February 2016, and seven months later, her homeroom teacher noticed that something was wrong with her. When the teacher asked her if there was a problem, she said her classmates verbally harassed her.

The school judged that the girl was being bullied, and took measures such as sharing information inside the school, giving guidance to the perpetrator, and reshuffling class members in the spring of 2017.

As a result, the girl, originally quiet, began to show some signs of getting along with her classmates, such as playing tag with them. The school decided that the bullying issue had been solved.

However, she continued to be bullied. The homeroom teacher thought the girl had made new friends to be able to play those games, but the girl was the only child selected to be "it" to chase others. The girl was also forced to pay for stationery, food and drinks or even karaoke rooms. Other classmates did not report this to the school because they thought that reporting it "does not solve the problem," and doing so would "only make the situation worse," according to the education board.

The bullies eventually began to send messages via the LINE messaging app urging her to kill herself. The sixth grader eventually took her own life.

An investigation panel set up by the municipal education board reported in March 2018 that there was "not enough trust between pupils and teachers," as her peers chose not to report the bullying. The panel accused the teachers of failing to handle the situation properly despite the school's early awareness of the problem.

--- Questions remain over 24.5 percent of schools reporting no bullying

Despite the education ministry's emphasis on the importance of the early detection of potential signs of bullying, 24.5 percent of the more than 37,000 schools surveyed did not report even a single case of bullying. The number of recognized bullying per 1,000 pupils, which stood at 30.9 on average, varied from prefecture to prefecture. Saga Prefecture in southern Japan had a ratio of just 8.4 such cases, while the figure for Miyazaki Prefecture, on the same island of Kyushu, was 108.2 -- 12.9 times more than Saga.

The Miyazaki Prefectural Government carries out multiple training sessions for teachers every year on how to spot bullying. The prefecture also updates reported bullying statistics for each municipality every month, and compares the data with truancy or problem behavior reports to analyze if there is any connection between them. In addition, schools which report no instances of bullying are instructed to check if they are not overlooking something.

In the case of Fukushima Prefecture in northeastern Japan, the number of reported bullying incidents per 1,000 kids soared 2.5 times to 24.3 cases from 9.9 cases the previous year. "This is the result of serious efforts by schools," a prefectural official explained. "Before aiming for zero bullying incidents, we called on schools to instead make sure that there were zero cases of overlooking any possible bullying incidents first."

Of the total reported incidents of bullying in the prefecture, 91.4 percent were deemed resolved -- higher than the national average of 85.8 percent. The prefectural government has instructed schools to continue monitoring the situation for at least three months after a case has been determined to be settled.

A Saga Prefectural Government official, where the number of reported bullying was the lowest, explained that it is difficult to analyze why. "Schools are tackling bullying every day. We will continue to ask them to file reports without hesitation," they said. Despite this explanation, the ratio of bullying cases identified by teachers stood at 43 percent in Saga, far lower than the national average of 66.8 percent or the 86.8 percent recorded in Miyazaki.

Education ministry officials believe something is amiss at the schools where no bullying was reported. Of schools that conducted surveys asking students about bullying, 76.3 percent of the schools reported that the behavior was occurring. The figure was just 22.1 percent among schools that never conducted such a probe. Efforts made by the school administration itself to tackle the problem do indeed appear to influence recognition of bullying.

Midori Komori, director of the Gentle Heart Project nonprofit organization, which tackles the issue of bullying, was positive about the increase in the recognition of bullying cases, but emphasized that children "cannot be protected if those responding to the cases do not have the proper skills."

Komori, whose daughter took her own life after being bullied when she was a first-year student in high school, warned that the number of reported bullying cases still could be lower than the reality. "Some prefectures and schools might choose not to report real figures if they think they will be judged by those numbers," said Komori.

(Japanese original by Takashi Nakamura, Saitama-Nishi Bureau; Kenichi Mito and Kim Sooryeon, City News Department)

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