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Why did 'tyrant' teacher at school in Japan go unpunished for years despite 7 alerts?

A school building at Joyo Elementary School in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, which housed a special needs class, is pictured in the city on Sept. 30, 2021. (Mainichi/Nao Goto)

The teacher was a "tyrant" in the classroom. For four years he verbally abused and physically punished children, telling them, "You don't deserve to live," and "You're less than a piece of s---." Successive principals had received reports on his actions no less than seven times. So why did his high-handedness endure?

    The 39-year-old educator had belonged to an elementary school in the Hyogo Prefecture city of Himeji. He became a member of the teaching staff at an elementary school in the prefecture in 2006, and was officially employed as a qualified instructor of the city in 2011. In 2016, he started working at Joyo Elementary School in Himeji, and was put in charge of a special needs class including children with birth defects. He was viewed as a promising educator, being told that the school wanted him to be in a position where he could play a central role in education.

    Such prospects, however, were misaligned. After handling regular classes, the male teacher was in the 2018 school year put in charge of another special needs class of about five students whose conditions included autism and emotional problems. The same year, the verbal abuse and physical punishment began. In the middle of class, he shoved two male students -- a first grader and third grader -- and held them down against the floor. When one girl, a fifth-year student, told the male teacher, "I don't understand," he grabbed her hand tightly and whispered in her ear, "You not going to understand any explanation I give you."

    Children in special needs classes need extra attention. At Joyo Elementary School there was one female support worker in addition to the teacher. But when looking at the girl crying after the verbal abuse, the male teacher told the female worker, "Is there any meaning teaching a lot like this? It even does our heads in. You'd agree, right?"

    This photograph shows materials from the Hyogo Prefectural Board of Education announcing examples of the male teacher's verbal abuse and physical punishment of students. (Mainichi/Shohei Miyamoto)

    The teacher's problematic behavior did not go unnoticed. In the 2018 school year, the female staffer told the 56-year-old vice principal at the time, "He's physically restraining the children and shouting at them." When the teacher's bad behavior continued, she reported it again, and the school cautioned him, but they did not report his actions to the municipal education board.

    On another two occasions in the 2020 school year, the female staff member told the then vice principal, who at 55 is now principal of the school, that the male teacher's instruction had "gone too far." But even then, the school let the teacher off by verbally cautioning him.

    It was in 2021 that the verbal abuse escalated. On April 16, he told a fourth-year student who didn't get dressed, "You don't deserve to live. You might as well die. Hurry up and move to another school." Then in June, he flew into a rage when a fourth-year student hid a tag for the person on duty to water the flowers, and told him, "I don't need you here. Beat it. Get out. Never come to this school again, and transfer to another school right away." He also allegedly grabbed the boy's arm and shook him.

    From April onwards, the female worker approached officials including the principal three more times regarding the teacher's behavior, but the situation remained unchanged, and again only a verbal warning was issued.

    After the repeated warnings, the female worker made up her mind to complain for the eighth time. In June 2021, she showed the principal memos she had kept in her notebook. They included specific details of the verbal abuse and physical punishment and the dates. The worker tearfully told the principal, "I was unable to stop him myself."

    Members of the Hyogo Prefectural Board of Education bow in apology in their announcement of the sacking of a male special needs teacher over verbal abuse and physical punishment of students, in the city of Kobe on Sept. 21, 2021. (Mainichi/Motohiro Inoue)

    Realizing the seriousness of the situation, the principal contacted the municipal board of education for the first time. The abusive teacher took sick leave from the same day. He is said to have attempted to muzzle the female staff member from speaking out.

    The prefectural board of education, which was contacted by the municipal education board, deemed 34 of the incidents described in the female worker's memos to be verbal abuse or physical punishment. When questioned by the prefectural education board, the teacher said, "My messages didn't get through even when I said things strongly, so I let my anger get the better of me." The prefectural education board, however, sacked him on Sept. 21, stating, "In addition to the habitual nature of his actions, he made statements harming students' human rights and there was malicious silencing involved. He is unqualified to be an educator."

    After the Himeji Municipal Board of Education became aware of the problem, it questioned almost all teaching staff at the school. It said close to 10 people, or just under a third of them, responded that they were aware of the teacher's verbal abuse and physical punishment.

    So why were the SOS calls from the classroom made light of? When questioned by the Mainichi Shimbun, the school's current principal said, "He was a serious teacher, and he elicited a sense of trust. I thought he would improve if he was verbally cautioned. I was lax in my awareness."

    The former vice principal explained that after he received the two complaints in the 2018 school year, he "cautioned the former teacher directly, telling him there was a possibility he could be fired." As for why he didn't contact the city's education board or carry out an investigation, he said, "I wasn't instructed by the principal to do so."

    The parent of one child attending a special needs class expressed a deep sense of distrust toward the school, commenting, "I can only think the response was a cover-up. He (the teacher who was fired) probably continued the verbal abuse and physical punishment thinking that they were children who would have trouble clearly conveying their own feelings."

    Maiko Sugawara, a professor at Toyo University who is familiar with educational environments for children with disabilities, commented, "The fundamental problem that there are few opportunities in Japan to interact with people with disabilities plays a part in this." Even in the education sector, there are few opportunities for educators to interact with the disabled, and Sugawara noted, "They aren't able to put themselves in the positions of the children with disabilities."

    In the case in Himeji, not only those in managerial positions but many colleagues of the teacher were aware of the verbal abuse and physical punishment, but it continued. At schools in Japan, even if some kind of problem erupts in a class, there is a strong tendency to seek a solution from the teacher in charge.

    "If special needs teachers had had the opportunity to receive advice from a professional viewpoint, then it may have been possible to prevent this," Sugawara said. "It's important to create an open workplace where it is easy to speak out, where not only special needs teachers but all educators and managing staff interact with people with disabilities and understand them."

    (Japanese original by Nao Goto, Himeji Bureau, and Shohei Miyamoto, Kobe Bureau)

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