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Ferry tragedy highlights school trip safety concerns

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Published : 2014-04-24 20:56
Updated : 2014-04-24 20:56

Last week’s sinking of the Sewol ferry that took the lives of more than 100 people ― most of them high school students on a school field trip ― has left the families of the deceased in despair, survivors traumatized, and the nation in deep grief.

In a desperate attempt to prevent reoccurring fatal incidents to which young students fall victim, education authorities pinned the blame on large-scale field trips carried out annually by all Korean schools. Experts, however, are questioning whether banning field trips would be a solution to school-related accidents.

“Saying field trips are responsible for the recent incident is just absurd,” Hong Hoo-jo, a professor of education at Korea University, told The Korea Herald.

He added that education circles had been working to increase extracurricular activities for students. “That was the whole idea of the government-backed free learning semester. Forcing students back into the classroom? It makes no sense.”
High school students participate in a field trip to Deoksugung Palace, Seoul, in this undated file photo. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

The Education Ministry on Monday said officials across the country agreed on canceling days-long school trips taken for educational purposes ― known here as “suhak yeohaeng (educational trip)” ― for the first half of this year. Schools across Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, where the victims had attended school, had already announced they were canceling all field trips for now.

“Field trips are an essential part of students’ growth. The real issue here is that a system that is supposed to be safe is actually not,” said Park Bum-lee, chairperson of the National Association of Parents for Cham Education. She also emphasized the educational effects of trips, such unique experiences that students cannot have in the classroom.

“It almost feels as if adults are trying to bail out of taking responsibility for their own mistakes by pointing fingers at the field trip. I think (trip banning) is merely a temporary measure,” said Yang Jung-ho, an education professor at Sungkyunkwan University.

Contrary to what the ministry’s actions suggest, the main culprit is hardly the field trip itself, but a combination of the hazardous operation of a time-worn ship, the irresponsible crew and the amateurish response from the government, observers claim.

The so-called educational trips themselves, however, are not without flaws.

Between 2011 and 2013, accidents that occurred on these trips increased by 67.4 percent, according to data revealed Monday by Rep. Yoo Ki-hong of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy.

“The Education Ministry has been idle about the surging number of accidents during educational trips. There cannot be any improvements when (officials) dump all the responsibility for student safety on the school,” Yoo said in a press release.

Last year, five high school students were killed during an unregulated marine-style boot camp on the West Coast. The incident raised alarm over loose safety measures for student activities outside schools and the potential hazards of using cheap, unqualified camps.

After the incident, Rep. Kim Sang-hee of the NPAD proposed a bill on enhancing safety measures related to school activities. The bill was only passed by a parliamentary committee on Wednesday, some eight months and scores of deaths later.

According to a recent survey by the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations, 64.8 percent of teachers said large-scale educational trips should be banished.

“Schools opt for mass trips for convenience, but the problem is that many trips are more vulnerable to accidents because it is more difficult for teachers to react on them,” said KFTA spokesman Kim Dong-seok. He said more than 7 out of 10 teachers said the biggest challenge on educational trips is supervising the students.

Although the Education Ministry vowed to provide manuals for teachers on how to react in the event of a plane or ship-related accident on a field trip, Kim said they can hardly be a solution.

“While a manual on accidents other than plane or ship accidents already exists, about 35.16 percent of teachers said they received no training on how to cope with disasters,” said Kim.

“Teachers need experience and training to cope with disasters, which they hardly get access to,” said Kim. In the Sewol incident, teachers were not prepared to disobey the crew’s instructions for the passengers to stay in their cabins while they fled to safety.

Experts said the government needs to take a bigger role in ensuring students’ safety, instead of just leaving it to schools.

With the adults failing to ensure children’s safety, professor Hong of Korea University even suggested that authorities should educate children on taking care of themselves. He said students should be equipped with survival skills such as swimming, which are neglected by most schools across the country.

But discussions, committees and bills only go so far in preventing tragedies, experts pointed out, saying the key is for people to understand and remember that nothing is more important than safety.

Just 15 years ago, 19 preschoolers lost their lives in a fire at an unauthorized camp facility in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province. The mother of one victim told local media that “nothing has changed” since the tragic event prematurely took away her 6-year-old child.

“The chances are, everyone will just forget about it soon. It was the same situation two months ago in the Gyeongju disaster, but no one at the Education Ministry made a move to prevent it (from reoccurring),” said Hong. Nine college students were killed in February after the roof of a resort building in Gyeongju collapsed.

Hong said no extra safety measures had been put in place since the accident. “We need to identify the roots of these tragedies and prepare for them,” he said.

While the general consensus is that school trips themselves can hardly be considered the fundamental problem behind the mass deaths in the Sewol sinking, many parents feel reluctant to send their children off on trips in light of such lack of competence in disaster management.

“When I think about the inadequate conditions of field trips, it’s a miracle that I have not encountered any fatal accidents,” a mother of a 3-year-old boy said. “Who would want to send their children on field trips now?”

By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)

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