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How can kids be kept safe on way to school?

The Yomiuri Shimbun

From left, Mafumi Usui, Mari Yokoya and Takeo Funyu

The Yomiuri Shimbun A spate of horrible crimes targeting children has shocked the nation. In May, an elementary school second-grader on her way home from school in Niigata was abducted and driven away, and her body was later dumped on a railroad track. On June 26, a fatal shooting happened near an elementary school in Toyama. How should society protect children from danger as they go to and from school? The Yomiuri Shimbun asked three experts for their insights. The following are excerpts of the interviews.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, June 28, 2018)

Community ties 1st line of defense against crime

I walked around the area in Niigata where the girl’s body was dumped after she was murdered in May. I found the homes of the victim and the defendant very close to each other. Crime arises when there is a “would-be criminal,” children who can be targeted and a chance to commit crime.

First and foremost, it is vital not to allow criminals to commit crimes. Many crimes target isolated vulnerable people such as the elderly, women and children.

Creating communities in which vulnerable people do not become isolated is the key to preventing crime. Being isolated does not just mean being alone. Say children are playing in a park where there are many people. If nobody is watching a certain child, a criminal feels the child could be a target. It’s crucial for people in the community to know each other’s families and talk to each other in daily life.

We also need to reduce spaces where crimes tend to be triggered. Chances to commit crimes arise in “places that are easy to access and difficult to see.” A barely used housing complex was near the spot where the Niigata girl was abducted. It was a spot that people could approach without being noticed and in which they could stay hidden while carefully searching for targets.

If there is a poorly managed building or an overgrown vacant lot around your residence, you should speak to the building or lot manager about them. It is also good to arrange for local residents to cut the grass and weeds. Spaces that are clearly being looked after give the impression that people are watching it, which makes it harder for criminals to commit crimes there.

On the other hand, activities to watch out for children’s safety should not go overboard. If the burden of shouldering these activities becomes too heavy, they inevitably will be cut back sooner or later. It is enough to tackle easy activities such as walking your dog or cleaning the front of your home during the time when children walk home from school. Continuing such activities as a whole community is essential. It is also beneficial if adults walk with their children and prepare a crime prevention map that pinpoints potentially dangerous places.

Though you should assume that a would-be criminal might be lurking nearby, giving too much importance to information about suspicious individuals can be problematic. Just because someone might look a bit unusual, that does not necessarily mean they are a potential criminal. In many cases, people who commit such crimes have good communication skills and are adept at dealing with children.

Most adults can be trusted, but we should tell children that there also are “bad people.” We must instruct children that they absolutely must not go with someone who tries to get them on their own or coax them into a vehicle.

Many of these would-be criminals have their own problems and struggles, but get no support from people around them. You may be told “Mind your own business,” but just asking someone in the community who seems to be troubled, “Are you OK?” can make a difference. These simple efforts are the first steps to preventing crime.

-- Interviewed by Hiromasa Takeda, Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

--Mafumi Usui

--Professor at Niigata Seiryo University

Specializes in social psychology. He also serves as a Niigata city school counselor. Books written include “Futsu no Katei kara Umareru Hanzaisha” (Criminals born from ordinary homes) and “Daredemo Iikara Koroshitakatta!”(I wanted to kill anybody!). He is 58.

Listening to children can help ensure safety

When it comes to ensuring the safety of school routes, it is important to take the views of children into consideration for improving the ability of caregivers and local residents to watch over them. Children have the ability to notice dangerous places more than adults realize.

In a community in Kyushu, a child pointed out, “People could hide in a vacant lot where the grass was growing like crazy.” This grass was then cut. This improved visibility in the area and led to creating a town where crimes rarely happen.

However, even if children are worried about something, they won’t always tell an adult. During our daily lives we need to create relationships where children can quickly tell their teachers and other adults if they feel something unusual. Using opportunities such as the creating of school route safety maps should make it easier to naturally listen to children’s views.

When warning children about danger, it’s important not to generate any misunderstanding. Even if a child is told, “Don’t go off with a stranger,” an adult they played with at the park the day before also becomes someone they know in their eyes. It’s better to say something like, “Don’t go off with anyone unless your parents have said it’s OK.”

My institute asked people to tell us online about incidents that had frightened them. One respondent said three girls playing in a park had gotten in a vehicle with men they didn’t know. These men took photos of the girls. The girls might have understood the warning “Don’t be alone” as meaning “It’s no problem if there are three of us.” I want parents and children to talk to each other about what kinds of dangers are out there, rather than parents just warning their kids using a cookie-cutter formula.

You can confirm school routes more effectively if you do it with children at times such as before the start of a new term. Sometimes, friends a child walked to school with might have moved away, or the surroundings might have changed due to a construction project. It’s advisable to check the location of “110 houses” where children can seek help in the case of an emergency, and of places such as banks and convenience stores where several adults will be present.

Crime can also occur near a child’s home. Parents in double-income families, in which both parents are not home after school, should tell their children not to have their house key showing as they walk home. This could give a hint that the parents are out. To ensure that children do not get followed into the house, make sure they quickly lock the door after they get inside. Practicing these basic steps as a family is an effective way.

Regarding patrols, it is important for everyone to keep doing them in any possible scale, in any possible way. I have heard that an elderly woman, who has trouble walking, kept an eye on children by placing a chair on a quiet part of a school route and sitting there. Even seemingly trivial actions like having a chat on a school route or checking cars parked on the street can make it harder for somebody contemplating committing a crime to study an area or lie in wait for a victim.

Crime-prevention activities might be monotonous and their results are not always obvious, but it is important to repeat them. Steadily repeating these actions will definitely improve the safety of a neighborhood.

-- Interviewed by Mitsuhiko Watanabe, Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

--Mari Yokoya

--Director of the Institute for Child Safety

Gives lectures nationwide on issues such as crime and disaster prevention. Served as a member of the Minato Ward board of education in Tokyo. Author of “Hanzai no Kiken kara Kodomo wo Mamoru” (Protecting children from the dangers of crime). She is 58.

Be prepared to use alarm without hesitating

In 2017, the number of crimes recorded by police across the nation fell to its lowest since the end of World War II. However, many people have the impression that, with incidents where children are preyed upon, public safety is deteriorating. Abductions and other crimes targeting children previously tended to be committed to demand a ransom, so most households considered them crimes that happened on TV. But now they are considered as crimes that could happen nearby, which makes people feel more anxious.

Society’s concern about the safety of children on the way to and from school has increased following a string of incidents targeting children, including the 2005 murder in Imaichi (now Nikko), Tochigi Prefecture, where a first grade elementary school girl disappeared on her way home from school and was killed.

Since around that time, my company began to hold in earnest visiting lectures and crime-prevention lessons for children at elementary and junior high schools. In moments of danger, such as when a suspicious stranger approaches, children tend to fall silent. We help them practice how to speak out and say things like, “Stop it!” and “Help!” We are receiving more requests for these lessons each year.

Furthermore, for children who cannot refuse an offering from a stranger, it becomes easier for them to say no if they can pin the blame on a third party, such as by saying, “My mom says I’m not allowed to do that” or “This is a rule at my school.”

Personal alarms are used by more and more children mainly among elementary school students as a tool for protecting themselves. It is recommended that the volume is set at 85 decibels or louder because the alarm can be hard to hear in noisy places. Just as some children are unable to raise their voices when they get scared, it is possible some children may freeze and not be able to set off their personal alarm. To get around this problem, it is a good idea for parents and children to practice using the alarm together so each child can use it without hesitating. It is also important to regularly check that the batteries have not gone dead so the alarm will work in an emergency.

I have researched child safety for the past 15 years. I believe parental awareness is especially important. I want parents to be careful about changes in their children’s environment, such as the shutting of a shop that children might have run into to seek help, and information about suspicious individuals spotted on school routes.

On June 26, a security guard was shot dead at an elementary school in Toyama. We are in an age in which danger could be present not only on school routes but also on school premises. When confronted with a knife-wielding assailant, one effective option is using school desks and chairs as shields to keep the assailant at a distance.

-- Interviewed by Taiji Yasuda, Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

--Takeo Funyu

--Research Engineer at Secom Intelligent Systems Laboratory

Director of the Kids Design Association headquartered in Tokyo. Author of “Kodomo no Bohan Manyuaru” (Crime prevention manual for children) and “Taisetsu na Kodomo no Mamorikata”(How to protect your precious children). He is 49.Speech

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