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Suicides draw attention to bullying at school

A recent spate of student suicides has drawn attention to school bullying, with some cases hushed up to save schools’ reputations, leading victims to distrust their schools and teachers.

Reported cases of bullying at schools sharply increased last year from 5,606 in 2009 to 7,823 last year, although the number had fallen by about 3,000 between 2008 and 2009, according to a national survey.

According to the Teenage Violence Prevention Center, 14,939 students have asked for help with bullying this year. Of them, 520 students considered suicide and 1,392 suffered from depression, the center said.

In one shocking case, a bullied middle school girl was left suffering from severe posttraumatic stress due to bullying last year, according to TVPC on Tuesday.

Another high school student in Seoul nearly died last September after swallowing several heart disease pills, but was saved when her mother found her.

Students often don’t report their problems until the last minute because they are afraid of retaliation and hesitate to tell their parents because of conflict with them, according to Kim Bok-in, a counselor for bullied teenagers in Seoul. Students who are very shy also often don’t report, added Kim.

A 14-year-old boy who leapt to his death in Daegu last week after being bullied wrote in a suicide note that he had been hit 39 times and received threatening text messages even at night from his two classmates, according to the Daegu Police investigating the case.

There was even a case in which a student didn’t receive help from his teacher after reporting his problem several times.

“I asked for help from my teacher seven times, but he declined saying he’s busy. I was really hurt when he said ‘you take care of your own business,’” said the middle school student who posted his story on an online counseling website.

Teachers said that schools try to keep such cases secret.

“Schools try to shush cases involving school violence because they are afraid it will harm their reputation,” said a teacher who wished to be anonymous.

“The problem is schools are so passive in solving bullying cases or prevention as they just hope it can just pass without causing much trouble for them,” said Kim.

Experts say there needs to be systematic and more professional approach to bullying and its victims.

“Bullying tends to reoccur as those who bullied their classmates tend do it again even after they finished a round of special education including some volunteer works and communication courses as a penalty,” said Kim. “The juvenile law for students who make their classmates suffer is too light to punish them too.”

They say that punishment should be strengthened and accompanied by counseling sessions for both the bullies and their victims.

More investment in prevention education would save money and energy spent on future bullying cases, they stress.

There are centers that support troubled teenagers in major cities nationwide that offer online advice as well as in person and whose staff visit schools to give anti-bullying lectures.

But there are not enough qualified counseling teachers who can observe and be close to students at all times at schools, although the Education Ministry said they will dispatch 1,800 counseling teachers in light of recent bullying cases.

“The government should dispatch qualified counseling teachers who are capable of catching a students being bullied before they tell them, not the ones who just come to fill the post,” said a teacher in Gyeonggi Province on condition of anonymity.

By Lee Woo-young (