The Yomiuri Shimbun September 19, 2013
Kindergartens must ensure safety of children when disasters occur
A private kindergarten in Miyagi Prefecture has been taken to task in a court ruling on a lawsuit filed by parents whose kindergarten children died in the March 2011 disaster. The ruling blamed the kindergarten for failing to protect its pupils from the tsunami triggered by the catastrophic Great East Japan Earthquake, and the facility’s operator was ordered to pay compensation. This may serve as a wake-up call for facilities taking care of small children.
On Tuesday, the Sendai District Court ordered the kindergarten’s operator to pay about ¥177 million in compensation to the parents of four children who died along with a kindergarten employee when the tsunami engulfed their school bus immediately after the earthquake.
The lawsuit had been filed by the parents, who argued that the deaths were caused by the kindergarten’s failure to take appropriate action to protect their children’s lives. In supporting the plaintiffs, the district court concluded that the kindergarten had neglected to gather information about the likelihood of a tsunami following the quake.
Kindergarten pupils are far less competent in avoiding danger than grown-ups. It is difficult for them to escape to safety at their own discretion in an emergency.
The court ruling was quite reasonable in stating that there was no way for kindergarten children to ensure their safety other than to trust the school’s director and teachers and follow their instructions.
Kindergartens are duty-bound to protect the safety of their pupils. In fact, the court ruling stated that kindergartens are obliged to anticipate possible danger and do their utmost to avert any threat.
Based on this, the court placed the blame on the kindergarten in Ishinomaki, arguing that the facility should have expected the arrival of a tsunami considering that an earthquake with a maximum seismic intensity of lower 6 on the Japanese scale of 7 had continued for about three minutes. The ruling said the kindergarten should have listened closely to the radio and the community public address system to gather information about a possible tsunami.
No preparations made
During the trial, the kindergarten insisted that the tragedy was an unavoidable accident caused by a devastating tsunami that could not have been foreseen.
It should be noted, however, that the bus taking the children home was headed toward the sea after leaving the kindergarten, which was on elevated ground. It was reasonable for the four children’s parents to argue that the loss of life should be attributed to the kindergarten’s thoughtless conduct, especially as the facility itself was not affected by the tsunami.
A manual prepared by the kindergarten to protect its pupils whenever a major earthquake occurs requires its employees to ensure the children take refuge in the facility’s play area at first, and then allow them to return home with their parents when they arrive to pick them up. However, most of the kindergarten’s staff had not known of the manual. No disaster drills had been carried out in accordance with the manual, either.
Evidently, the kindergarten lacked preparations regarding a massive earthquake and possible tsunami.
If the kindergarten appeals to a higher court, a new round of hearings will start. It remains to be seen whether the kindergarten will be able to pay the massive amount of court-ordered compensation.
If a feared massive Nankai Trough earthquake actually strikes, a tsunami is predicted to follow that would cause damage in excess of that incurred by the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Kindergartens must secure evacuation sites and routes in preparation for such a disaster, while also conducting periodic disaster drills to make sure their teaching staff and pupils know how to use them. This task should be tackled immediately by all facilities that take care of children, including day-care centers and primary schools.
At municipally run kindergartens in Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture, children, teachers and all other staff conduct drills in which they evacuate to higher ground almost every day. This is the kind of effort that should be made in other parts of the country.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 18, 2013)