Photo/IllutrationMunicipal education board senior officials apologize at a news conference at the Takahagi city office in Ibaraki Prefecture on May 6 after a third-year female junior high school student committed suicide. (The Asahi Shimbun)

A third-year female junior high school student in Takahagi, Ibaraki Prefecture, committed suicide after leaving a note saying that members of the school’s table tennis club were victims of abusive coaching.

The 15-year-old girl killed herself after leaving the note in which she described how the male teacher serving as the coach for the club had verbally and physically abused members who did not seem to be motivated.

The teacher hurled verbal abuse against such students, calling them “idiots” and saying, “I’ll kill you,” according to her apparent suicide note. He also perpetrated such violent acts as shoving students by their shoulders, she wrote. In a questionnaire the school conducted in autumn, she complained of long practice sessions.

Whether her suicide was caused by the teacher’s abusive coaching behavior should be determined through an investigation to be conducted by an independent body that will be set up shortly to look into the tragedy.

But the teacher has admitted to resorting to an “inappropriate” coaching approach, according to the municipal board of education.

The school should also examine whether and how other members of the club were abused by the coach and provide necessary treatment for the victims.

In March, the education board received an anonymous alert on the teacher’s behavior. Whether the board made an appropriate response to the whistle-blowing report should also be assessed.

This tragedy should trigger broad public debate on the state of school club activities as a whole.

Problems with school club activities that can cause serious mental or physical damage to students, such as violence in coaching and excessive long hours of practice, are by no means unique to this school in Ibaraki Prefecture.

In a government survey concerning school club activities in fiscal 2017, 11 percent of the responding junior high schools said they had no specific “rest days” for club activities.

As it has become widely recognized that club-related work imposes heavy burdens on many teachers, efforts are under way to improve the situation. But steps should also be taken to prevent harmful effects on children’s daily life and health.

About 30 percent of all public junior high schools have a policy of mandating, in principle, that all students join a club, according to the survey findings. While the education ministry’s official guidelines for school curricula call for “voluntary” participation in club activities based on students’ “independent” decisions, the findings indicate that many schools effectively force students to join clubs.

Club activities frequently create situations in which teachers commit violent acts against students, accounting for nearly 30 percent of all cases of teacher violence, second only to the figure for classes, according to certain data.

Schools have long regarded club activities as an important part of school education and an effective means to prevent delinquency.

Many parents have welcomed this policy as they can feel reassured about the safety and well-being of their children as long as they are at school.

Some parents also say they are reluctant to let their children quit their clubs because of concerns about remarks in their school reports that could affect whether they are admitted to the higher-level schools of their choice.

These factors are apparently responsible for the school club culture that discourages protests against inappropriate coaching.

The education ministry and local education boards should first take steps to firmly establish the principle that it is up to students to decide whether to join school clubs and their decisions should not affect their chances of getting accepted to the schools they want to attend.

The table tennis club in question has been a strong team, which has qualified for national championships. The tragedy is reminiscent of a case seven years ago in which the captain of the basketball club at the Osaka municipal government-run Sakuranomiya High School, which placed great importance on sports, committed suicide after suffering from physical punishment by the coach.

A group of independent investigators that looked into the case pointed to the evil tradition of justifying violence as part of education.

It is necessary to determine whether the culture of tolerating abusive coaching for victory was behind the latest case.

It is vital to make sure that school club coaches learn and adopt a coaching style focused on helping students develop their skills through rational practices without resorting to threatening or forceful acts. This is also true with cultural clubs.

It is also important to set up institutions outside the schools that students can turn to when they need help. Each local community should make serious efforts to be well-prepared to deal effectively with urgent requests for help from students.

--The Asahi Shimbun, May 10