Facility showed serious lack of responsibility for children’s lives

A painful tragedy has happened again. It must be said that the facility lacked awareness of the grave responsibility it had for the lives of the children in their care.

On Sept. 5, a 3-year-old girl was found unconscious after being left behind in a school bus at a certified childcare facility, a nintei kodomoen that has the functions of both a nursery school and kindergarten, in Makinohara, Shizuoka Prefecture. She was pronounced dead at the hospital. The cause of her death was heatstroke, and she had been left unattended in the bus for about five hours after arriving at the facility.

The girl was found lying on her back near the third row of seats. The highest temperature in the city that day was over 30 C. The bus was parked with the door locked in an open-air parking lot, and the girl’s water bottle found inside the bus was reportedly empty.

When thinking about the agony of the girl left alone in the hot bus, it is hard to put this tragedy into words.

The facility held a press conference on Sept. 7 to explain the circumstances. The usual driver was off that day and the board chairman of the facility, who is in his 70s, was driving instead. Six children and a female temp worker were on board, but neither the driver nor the temp worker confirmed that all of the children had gotten off the bus, nor did they inspect inside afterward, according to the facility.

Checking whether children have gotten out and then inspecting the inside of the vehicle are fundamental principles of safety management for school buses. Even though there were two adults, why did they fail to follow these basic procedures? The chairman told the press conference that he was unfamiliar with the process, as he does not usually drive the bus.

The classroom teacher and others assumed that the girl was absent or coming late, without checking with her parent or guardian.

The prefectural police searched the facility and the chairman’s house on suspicion of professional negligence resulting in death. The police need to determine why she was left behind in the bus and identify where responsibility lies.

Last summer, a 5-year-old boy also died of heatstroke after being left behind inside a school bus for about nine hours at a nursery school in Fukuoka Prefecture. In response to this incident, the central government issued a notice to local governments nationwide calling on childcare facilities for thorough confirmation that children are in attendance, but the lessons learned from that incident were not put into practice in this case.

In the Fukuoka Prefecture incident, the head of the nursery school who was driving the bus and others were indicted without arrest on charges of professional negligence resulting in death. However, the nursery school was given only a light administrative punishment — a recommendation to improve its operations.

This time, the Shizuoka prefectural government said it would conduct an audit over the incident. However, given the gravity of the situation, severe disciplinary action is necessary.

It has been extremely hot in recent years. People involved should bear in mind that leaving children behind in a vehicle, even for a short time, can be life-threatening. It would also be effective to teach children how to honk the horn so that they can call for help if they are left behind in a car.

Nursery schools nationwide have also seen cases of children being left behind during outdoor activities, such as taking a walk. The lack of crisis awareness may be a common factor between these cases and the school bus incidents.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 8, 2022)