Students in human pyramids walk from the grounds at Mihara junior high school during a sports festival in Hiroshima Prefecture, on June 18, 2016. Parents of a boy who died after the event said the pyramid unit collapsed. (Provided by bereaved family)

MIHARA, Hiroshima Prefecture--Human pyramids remain a common sight at school sports festivals across Japan despite the scores of permanent injuries, safety warnings and lawsuits over the “undokai” fixture.

Thousands of children are hurt every year when the pyramids, which involve layers of students supporting the bodies of others above, become unstable or collapse. Deaths have also been reported.

In March 2016, the Japan Sports Agency instructed schools to take safety countermeasures for such activities.

But months later, on June 18, nine students at the Hiroshima University-affiliated Mihara junior high school formed a three-layer pyramid. While still in that formation, the students walked out from the performance area.

A third-year student, who was positioned in the middle of the unit and supported the student at the top of the pyramid, complained of dizziness after the event concluded.

“The leg of the upper student hit me,” he told his family. “My head was spinning and it hurt.”

Before dawn on June 20, his condition worsened. He complained of a headache and nausea, and then he died from a cerebral hemorrhage.

His parents in November 2017 filed a lawsuit at the Fukuyama branch of Hiroshima District Court, demanding the school operator pay 96 million yen ($858,000) in compensation.

The defendant has denied that the boy’s death was caused by an accident during the sports festival.

“I was stunned to hear the then principal saying, ‘Nothing happened when they were forming the pyramid,’” the boy’s mother said. “They brushed the whole thing under the carpet. I feel they are treating my son’s life poorly.”

The parents alleged that having the students walk while in the pyramid created an unstable situation and caused the formation to collapse. The upper student’s knee hit the back of their son’s head, which caused his death, they said.

The doctor who examined the student submitted to the court a statement based on computed tomography scans indicating that the back of the boy’s head most likely suffered a strong blow.

In addition, the parents showed the court a picture of the event that captured the moment when the knee hit their son’s head.

They have argued that the school should have been aware of the danger of the activity, paid insufficient attention to safety and failed to investigate and explain the fatal accident.

The key to the lawsuit is whether the pyramid actually collapsed. Both parties submitted footage of the participating students walking in pyramid units.

“Their unit did not collapse,” an official of the school operator said. “They disassembled safely.”

An official of the national university corporation that operates the junior high school told The Asahi Shimbun that students have been forming pyramids and walking out from the school ground in units since around 1970.

“We had been conscious of safety,” he said.

The school, however, ended the walking-pyramid practice in 2017. Human pyramids were not built in the school’s sports festival this year.

The mother said the principal told her that if she continued to press her case, the other students would feel like killers.

“But the other students could also have been victims,” the mother told The Asahi Shimbun. “We have never thought that they are guilty. We can only think that the school has been trying to dodge its responsibility by putting the focus on other students.”

The mother said she believes the accident occurred because the school easily instructed the students to walk in the three-layered units without thinking about safety.

“There might be schools that fail to come face-to-face with a student’s death,” she said. “But we wanted to believe that our school was not that kind because it was the school that my son was fond of.

“We want people to know the truth. We wish our school was an entity that properly faces the facts.”

More than 8,000 accidents have occurred at sport festivals held at elementary, junior high and high schools in each fiscal year from 2011 to 2015. The tally for fiscal 2016 topped 5,000.

From fiscal 1969 to 2016, nine students died, not including the Mihara student, and 102 suffered from residual disabilities in pyramid-related accidents, according to the Japan Sport Council.

The Fukuoka High Court in 1994 ordered the prefectural government to pay about 115 million yen to a former high school student who became paralyzed from the neck down after being buried in the bodies of a collapsed pyramid.

“Even after the Japan Sports Agency issued the warning notice, some schools still have their students perform acrobatic activities (in pyramids) although the number of layers is not as high,” said Ryo Uchida, an associate professor of education sociology at Nagoya University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development.

“Teachers need to review the activities of their students based on the types of possible injuries the students may suffer and how risky such activities are.”

The Mihara student who died wanted to become a pilot, according to his mother.

“He had a dream and great enthusiasm,” she said. “I still feel that my son will return and say, ‘I’m home.’”