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[Feature] Despite #MeToo, change yet to come to schools

It has been nearly year since Kim Na-yoon, 16, came forward with a revelation of sexual harassment by male students against the backdrop of the nationwide #MeToo movement. But there has been little change at schools, she says.

“In society as a whole, there is a wave of changes, but they are being denied,” she said.

In her final year at a middle school in Busan, she found out that her male friends had long made sexual jokes about her behind her back. She was terrified of going to school to face those who viewed her as a sexual object.

When she told a teacher about it, she was asked to keep quiet and was blamed for making a big deal out of nothing. Police told her to drop the case because there was not enough evidence, parents were more worried about the future of the male students and friends of the boys forced her to accept their apology.

Kim, who has moved to another city, is still haunted by nightmares and still attacked for coming forward as a victim.

“The adults told me boys their age tend to make such jokes so I should just ignore them,” said Kim, who now attends a high school in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province.

“So I blamed myself for a long time. I thought I was weird and too sensitive. I was told my body was too mature so I became the subject of sexual jokes. In summer, I wore long sleeves and long pants to cover up my body,” she said.

The #MeToo movement, which began in Hollywood, reached Korea in January last year when prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun accused her senior colleague of sexual harassment.

Her revelation opened the floodgates of reports of sexual misconduct in various walks of life, including schools, inspiring students from some 65 schools to take to social media and speak out on their experiences.

In 2018, the most tweeted social issue hashtag in Korea was #SchoolMeToo.

The nationwide campaign brought some offenders to justice and prompted the Ministry of Education to launch an investigation to look for sexual misconduct in school settings and raise awareness of what constitutes sexual violence.

However, many of the victims, mostly female students, are still being blamed for not being careful and speaking out about their suffering, and have been forced to “understand” or forgive the assailants.

There is still a long way to go to root out sexual harassment at schools, the victims say, calling for not only stepped-up responses to such cases but also efforts to change the cutthroat school environment.

Demonstrators call on the government to step up its response to victims’ revelations of sexual abuse by teachers and peers, in front of Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Feb. 16. (Yonhap)
Demonstrators call on the government to step up its response to victims’ revelations of sexual abuse by teachers and peers, in front of Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Feb. 16. (Yonhap)

Horrors of going to school

Lee Yu-jin, an 18-year-old high school senior, came forward in April last year after she learned she had been the subject of “locker room talk.”

“I was graded for my face, body, charm and personality by peers,” said Lee, who graduated from a small private school in Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province, this year. “I heard I had been described as easy to have sex with because I had come from Germany.”

Empowered by the #MeToo movement, she raised the issue during a school assembly, calling out the male students who made sexual jokes about her.

“When I made it public, I was accused by parents of denting the male predators’ chances for college entrance,” she said. “All of a sudden, predators being punished became my fault when I was the victim.”

The students Kim and Lee had accused of sexual harassment were asked to offer an apology and perform community service, but avoided severe punishment.

Standing up against teachers could be even more challenging.

“I felt bad when the teacher touched my arms or waist and made lewd jokes to me and my friends,” said a 16-year-old student, who wished to remain anonymous. “He said he would give us perfect scores if we sat on his lap. He bragged about going to karaoke with students and getting massages from them. He has told us that women must be sexy.”

“After I graduated, it was unbearable to think he still does that to other students, so I joined the #MeToo movement,” she said. She then created a social media account where students from her school shared their stories online.

She is not sure whether she could have done that while she was still attending that school.

“If we want to go to good high schools, we need teachers’ help to get a better reference. So we are told to put up with it a little bit,” she said.

The revelations of sexual harassment continue today.

In the latest revelation made by a student in Incheon in January, a teacher said to students that school uniforms are the most erotic outfits because they trigger one’s vulgar imagination. Another teacher reportedly said that ugly girls should be killed and chopped into pieces.

Burden on victims

Going beyond avoiding certain teachers because of harassment, the young girls have accused teachers of sexual harassment. The burden of proof, however, heavily falls on them -- entailing secondary damage from recalling and proving their suffering in detail.

Often, for victims, there has been no one to turn to and their confessions bring about little change, leading more and more victims to get “tired of” coming forward, the victims say.

“Many of my friends experience sexual harassment in any form from teachers or fellow students. But they choose to stay mum. It is a social structure that silences them,” Kim said. “I cannot ask them to speak out. I know that standing up against teachers means they have to risk everything -- their futures.” 

Kim Na-yoon speaks out about sexual abuse by her peers during a protest in front of the presidential office in central Seoul on Feb. 16. (Kim Na-yoon)
Kim Na-yoon speaks out about sexual abuse by her peers during a protest in front of the presidential office in central Seoul on Feb. 16. (Kim Na-yoon)

The authority of teachers has diminished over the past decade, teachers complain, amid growing calls for the improvement of students’ rights.

Under the country’s notoriously competitive education system, however, teachers have enormous control over students -- particularly in student records and recommendations -- stopping many of the victims from coming forward out of fear of negative repercussions for their future.

And the secondary damage they have to face for coming forward as victims is a further source of frustration.

The victims in this story all told The Korea Herald they had received numerous bullying or threatening messages from people who accused them of tainting the reputations of the schools, the teachers and the predators.

“I really felt that misogyny could get me killed here,” Kim said. “Victims often get isolated. Friends tell me I ruined their chances of going to college. Teachers say I put them at risk of losing a job.”

Calls for fundamental changes

Activists take issue with lenient punishment of offenders.

Some teachers involved in #MeToo revelations have been fired or suspended, but others have failed to have their contracts renewed or received verbal warnings.

Many more have walked away unscathed on grounds of a “lack of evidence.”

A male teacher at Yonghwa Girls’ High School was not even indicted despite testimony from over 160 students.

Late last year, the Ministry of Education rolled out measures including the expansion of sexual violence education and laying out a manual for handling sexual abuse cases to prevent sex-related incidents and improve schools’ responses.

It said it would carry out surveys of a sample of students at a small number of schools this year to identify the extent of the problems within the year.

“This year, we plan to expand gender equality and human rights education at schools, and survey a sample of schools to draw up long-term policies to root out sexual abuse in school setting,” he said.

Such measures, however, have fallen short of assuring victims and activists of effective change at schools.

“There is a need for an all-out inspection enabling students at all schools to anonymously share their experiences of being sexually abused, rather than a survey of a sample of students,” said Yang Ji-hye, who heads the group Feminism for Youth.

“Victims fear they could be accused of making false claims. That’s why the ministry should reach out to students and listening to them speak anonymously.”

“Feminism education for teachers and enactment of a students’ human rights law are also needed to improve sensitivity for gender equality and human rights at schools in general,” she added.

The ministry, for its part, has its own difficulties amid a growing generational gap in terms of gender sensitivity in the school environment.

The Korea Federation of Teachers’ Associations recently asked the ministry to write a manual on what level of physical contact is allowed with students, drawing the ire of young feminists.

“Those who sexually harassed students must be punished. But for those who are not involved in such cases, they are confused and sometimes falsely accused of sexual harassment,” said Cho Sung-chul, a spokesperson for the Korea Federation of Teachers’ Associations, the biggest teachers’ group in the country.

“If we are accused of sexual abuse when we touch students to wake them up while they are sleeping in the classroom, how can we educate them? Standards of what constitutes sexual harassment are ambiguous,” he said.

With little change at home, young feminists have taken their case to the United Nations.

Yang testified in February before the Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva, Switzerland. The #SchoolMeToo movement was officially included in the list of inquiries for the Korean government by the UN committee, which requires the Education Ministry to submit a report on the situation.

For the #SchoolMeToo campaign to bear fruit, teachers, students and government officials all agree on one thing: The culture of schools has to change.

“Sexual discrimination, hatred and misogyny have become entrenched in classrooms,” Yang said. “The problem does not stem from a handful of students and teachers. The predators are not monsters. They are the result of the country’s education system, which prioritizes competition for college entrance over anything else.”

“And that’s what the #SchoolMeToo movement should fix in the long term.”