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[Weekender] Korea wages uphill battle against school violence

Korea struggles to cope with growing number of teens in distress as they return to school after pandemic

March 25, 2023 - 16:01 By Lee Jung-youn

CHANGWON, South Gyeongsang Province -- As the spring semester began in March, counselors at the Changwon Youth Counseling and Welfare Center in the southeastern industrial city were busy greeting children who feared going to school.

The center provides free psychological testing, counseling and play therapy for youths between the ages of 9 and 24 suffering from bullying. Most come to the center on recommendation from their schools and parents, though some come on their own.

It is hard to detect all the children in pain, as kids are often reluctant to reveal their scars, said one counselor. "It is not easy to gain their trust, but that is our job."

South Korea has made progress on the issue, with more counseling centers and legislation to prevent incidents being covered up, but recent events, particularly the pandemic, have caused cases to keep rising.

“The proportion of students who are suffering from mental problems caused by school violence has increased," said another counselor at the center, who requested to remain anonymous.

From domestic violence to economic difficulties, there are numerous factors behind adolescents’ mental problems, but school violence has been a major reason throughout the years, she explained.

Seniors at a high school in Seoul take a test on Thursday. (Joint Press Corp.)

The number of children asking for help has been increasing largely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as they lost key chances to practice relationship building. The number of children becoming reclusive has also increased.

“Also, children who suffer from school bullying are becoming younger and younger,” the counselor said.

The Changwon center currently has 10 counselors overseeing 264 students sent from schools in the region. It is one of 240 public counseling centers across the country dedicated to supporting children who suffer from school and domestic violence.

Aside from referrals, students can call a hotline to report school violence. For students who do not wish to visit the centers, counselors sometime visit their home to provide help.

If the pandemic had the biggest influence on children exposed to school violence, megahit Netflix revenge drama series "The Glory" seems to have stirred up renewed public interest in the issue.

"The series is R-rated, so not many children talk about it, but it sure did had immense influence on adults and society. The school violence cases appear to have entered a new chapter," said Yang Mi-jin, a professor at the Korea Youth Counseling and Welfare Institute.

Noh Yoon-ho, a lawyer who specializes in school violence, said bullying cannot be covered up anymore.

"It is now virtually impossible to cover up school violence cases, unlike in the past when each school was in charge of the cases that happened within their facilities," she said.

"Since 2020, the office of education in each region is in charge of school violence, so we can say that things are in a more professional and fair hand.”

“What the victims want is a sincere apology from the perpetrator and returning to his or her daily life with the guarantee that such violence will not occur again," Noh added.

School bullying is, however, evolving and moving into new realms, especially through the internet.

"Violence in the world that adults do not know is increasing, such as attacking victims through deepfake technology that edits victims' faces onto insulting images, or mocking them through anonymous chat applications," said Choi Woo-sung, head of the School Violence Prevention Research Center and a former school inspector who specialized in school violence cases.

To protect children from bullying, Korea should come up with better countermeasures, especially in how cases are managed, according to Chung Jae-joon, director of the Korea Institute for the Prevention of School Violence.

“(The anti-school-violence law) only states that it should 'formulate preventive policies,' and does not talk about how to develop a new policy nor a type, the interaction of different preventive policies and the way of experiments and feedback," he said.

Chung specifically called for the expansion of school police officers charged with dealing with school violence and managing adolescents involved in conflicts, which were introduced in 2012.

"Statistically, one SPO is taking care of 15 schools on average in Korea, while in the United States, about 67 percent of every school has a dedicated SPO that stays in the school. Korean schools still are not capable of responding to violence quickly."

A legal revision in 2021 also obligates the separation of victims from perpetrators. The principal must immediately separate the perpetrator from the victim -- even if it is a teacher -- immediately after recognizing the incident.

Moreover, a "conflict mediation" stage has been established in the process of school violence management within the school to prevent trivial cases from evolving into lawsuits and to restrain indiscriminate retaliatory reports -- such as the perpetrator accusing the victim so that the school will separate them from the rest of the class.

"In case of mild incidents where both victim and perpetrator agree to accept mediation, schools can request help from the office of education in the region, trying to mend things before the case gets to a legal stage," said an elementary teacher in Incheon, surnamed Park, who has been handling school violence cases for two years.

Universities here are looking into ways to factor in a student's history of bullying when considering them for admission, amid growing demand sparked by a former head of the National Office of Investigation who was revealed to have defended his son over his verbal harassment of a classmate in high school.

Kim Dong-won, president of Korea University, confirmed that the school is reviewing its policy to consider cases of serious bullying during the admissions procedure, through an interview with a local media Wednesday.

“School violence is not just a matter of perpetrators and victims. It can be influenced by domestic violence, a lack of domestic education, or maybe by the society that has pushed students to overly compete, or by unfair student management from a few teachers. School violence cases cannot be considered as problems of an individual child," Chung said, emphasizing the complexity of the school violence issue and calling for more comprehensive measures than just condemning certain individuals.

"Society should recognize that the causes of school violence are a complex product of families, society and schools," said Chung.