Back To Top

Korea struggles to save students from bullying

Experts call for fundamental solutions including less pressure on students, more support from teachers

Going to school was like a nightmare for Lee Su-in. The 15-year-old was habitually bullied by her peers for no other reason than that they did not like her appearance.

When she reported it to her teacher, things got worse. The teacher only told them off once in front of her.

“That was it, and after that they abused me even more severely,” she recalled. “I had no choice and decided in the end to transfer to an alternative school.”

School bullying is grabbing national attention after a 15-year-old student killed himself early this month, listing the names of schoolmates who allegedly abused him for two years. It was the 14th suicide believed to be caused by bullying in Daegu in less than two years.

The government scurried to announce measures including increasing security personnel and installing more and higher-resolution closed-circuit cameras.

But the plans were met with skepticism from many in schools and academia. In recent years every time the issue surfaced, the government has touted taking “extraordinary” responses which came short of curbing school violence. 
Flowers are laid on the desk of a teenage student who killed himself after being bullied at school in Gyeongsan, North Gyeongsang Province, on March 11. (Yonhap News)
Flowers are laid on the desk of a teenage student who killed himself after being bullied at school in Gyeongsan, North Gyeongsang Province, on March 11. (Yonhap News)

Nearly 1 in 10 students at Korean primary and secondary schools has suffered from various forms of violence at the hands of their peers, according to a survey by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.

According to the poll of 5.5 million elementary, middle and high school students, some 10 percent of respondents said they were bullied or physically abused at least once in 2012.

In his suicide note, the latest victim wrote that he was beaten in locations beyond the reach of surveillance cameras.

There are currently 18,179 cameras in schools around Seoul, but nearly 93 percent of them are low resolution and cannot help indentify bullies and victims, according to the data released by Kim Hyoung-tae, a member of the Education Committee of the Seoul Metropolitan Council.

Kim pointed out that school bullying usually takes place in locations where no CCTV cameras are, such as bathrooms and classrooms.

“Teachers should take the role of CCTVs,” Kim told The Korea Herald.

Experts say teachers should be allowed to spend more time on their students, but they are increasingly reluctant to take responsibility in resolving school violence.

Schools, due mainly to budget cuts, nearly doubled the proportion of teachers on short-term contract basis from 2008 to 2012. Nearly 1 in 10 teachers across the country currently works on a temporary basis or for a limited period, according to the ministry.

The ministry’s data compiled by Saenuri Party lawmaker Kang Eun-hee also shows that an increasing number of teachers avoid taking responsibility for students.

In 2010, about 8,000 temporary teachers were allocated as homeroom teachers, who take on extra responsibility for students in performance, administrative and disciplinary affairs.

But the tally of temporary teachers who did the job last year stood at 18,085; in particular, more than 67 percent of homeroom teachers in middle schools are now temporary teachers, according to the ministry data.

“School bullying at middle schools is a serious concern and students are badly in need of their teacher’s guidance,” Kang said in a statement.

“But how do you expect teachers with a contract of less than one year to do a difficult job well?” she added.

Teachers require far more than a just a pep talk to deal with bullying, so authorities should lessen the growing workload on them so that they can devote enough time to their students, Seoul city council member Kim said.

“Schools need to focus on preventive measures rather than surveillance cameras to prevent students from bullying,” he added.

Aside from hiring more teachers and counselors, experts say what is important is to change the stressful classroom culture by alleviating the academic burden on students.

Korea’s youth suicide rate jumped nearly 50 percent from 6.4 to 9.4 per every 100,000 people in the past 10 years, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

According to the survey by National Youth Policy Institute, about 23.4 percent of Korean youths thought of committing suicide in 2012.

Concern about academic performance was the most dominant reason for 36.7 percent of respondents, followed by family troubles and school violence for 23.7 percent and 7.6 percent, respectively.

“Adults should take the full responsibility; (parents and teachers) should no longer push our children into intense competition between classmates,” said Yoon Myung-hwa, a Seoul city council member.

“I believe in order to make schools a safe and fun place for our children, we must make not just a couple of changes, but (change) the entire system,” Kim said.

By Oh Kyu-wook (