In May Koreans were scandalized by a case of bullying in Daegu that grew into a bizarre atmosphere of sexual violence which culminated in some form of gang-rape (see also The Marmot). The legal case ended recently with no charges filed against any of the accused after police failed to secure cooperation from victims and their families, some of whom denied anything had taken place. This interview (done while the case was ongoing) with Nam Eun-ju, an activist in the area, helps shed some light on the story.
▲Interview with Nam Eun-ju, head of the Daegu Women’s Association (대구여성회)
Society has been shocked by a case of group sexual assault at an elementary school in Daegu which involved even very young children and went on for a long time. But rather than taking steps towards a solution, the school authorities and local society simply covered it up.
The scandal, revealed to the world by the media, has been treated by school authorities and parents as “exaggerated and non-existent”.
A local citizens’ group formed to go to the school and help deal with the issue, says that the school authorities and parents who have the responsibility of protecting the children, as well as the Office of Education, have not played their proper roles nor attempted to properly deal with the issue. What in the world could the problem be? On hearing of a case of a child being sexually assaulted, what is the best thing for a person to do?
Experts familiar with the special nature of the issue of the sexual assault of children warn that if not dealt with properly, similar incidents will continue to recur. Because of this Korean society, which is currently trying to deal with this issue, needs to investigate the issue and think about where and what kind of changes need to be made.
We met with Nam Eun-ju, director of the Daegu Women’s Association and active with the citizens’ group, and asked for her views on the situation, what makes it difficult to deal with, and what policies are needed.
There has been a lot of attention paid by the media to this case of student sexual assault, but it seems that the full picture has not yet emerged. Please explain how the students could have gotten into something like this.
“Teachers first became aware of sexual harassment being committed by the male students in November, and the group sexual assault incident was reported in April.
If you look at the entire case it is interconnected. It’s natural for their to be a coolest student in each school, each grade, and each class. At first the students had no intention of committing sexual assault, but a violent situation developed. The male students were hit, sexually assaulted, and robbed by the older boys, and then they brought in others. In the process victims became victimizers, and the number of students drawn in grew until even the girls were, too.
Besides this large, multi-layered case there were other, individual cases of sexual assault. Kids caught up in this kind of culture would sexually assault girls in the bathroom.
Nearly 100 names have been given to police by the teacher, 22 of them middle school students. Attention has focused on the ringleaders with little paid to the number of victims. In the lower grades the students had a chance to get a teacher involved, but once they got to fifth grade they wouldn’t talk. I think there was a possibility for the scope and nature of the situation to grow more serious. With other cases of teen group sexual assaults have been revealed in the media, people are wondering if this is a natural thing.”
With the revelation of this scandal people are wondering if the school is really doing anything. The former principal submitted a letter of resignation and a punishment committee has been opened to deal with those responsible, but is there no other measure for protecting children?
“It appears that the school is, in its own way, working hard to take proper measures. When the case was first reported on the news the Office of Education and the school began a ‘stabilization’ move. They would make a speech to the teachers every day about doing better. Parents were educated. The victimized students were separate, kept on the outside… The school has placed the homeroom teacher who revealed the case on sick leave, and if the teacher doesn’t come back we plan to lodge a complaint against the committee.”
Right now the school and parents are saying there is no connection between the harm these girls have suffered and the incidents which occurred at the same time. They call them separate matters but also call for the teacher to be punished. They say there nothing happened other than what was reported to the police. So nothing needs to be done? That runs counter to what we know about the truth. These children need counseling and treatment and the adults are saying that nothing happened.”
The parents’ attitude is even less understandable than the schools’. Why aren’t they protecting their children?
“First of all, students don’t talk to their moms. Kids are more afraid of their mom than of their victimizers, and they don’t want to make her angry. And the parents tell their kids they don’t want to hear about this kind of thing.
It’s clear that the kids have been hurt, but unfortunately it seems the parents absolutely do not believe anything happened. Maybe they think that is a way of protecting their children. Right now the kids may think so too, but as they grow older they could change their minds and hold a grudge over it.
If we want to solve this problem we have to face the problem, talk about it, get angry about it and heal the damage. The problem of sexual violence is that people don’t want to face it. When parents and schools see it they won’t face up to it and don’t want to talk about solutions.”
It seems that there is a refusal to deal with the sexual assault of the boys. Is that because they don’t know about the effect of sexual assault on children?
“Culturally our society is not interested in boys who have suffered a sexual assault. Children are the same. And because this incident saw boys as both victims and victimizers, parents think that nothing needs to be done.
It seems that, because they are still very young children, there is a desire to cover it up and say that they don’t know anything. But if you hide it now, and pretend nothing happened, does that actually mean nothing happened? The face is hidden but the body is the same as ever. Inevitably it’s going to come out.
This incident occurred at the time when children are learning about sex, and it is going to bubble up again at difficult times. When they have sex, or when they get married, it will come back. It will affect them as their consciousness develops and they grow up. If treated now it won’t be enough to heal the chasm inside them, but if we ignore the problem we don’t know how they will develop.
Because they are so young the damage can grow. Because they were forced into sexual assault rather than freely participating in it, the damage can grow. We cannot ignore the possibility that they will become sex criminals. Sexual assault follows a person for life and affects their sense of self. And it doesn’t affect just themselves because they have trouble forming connections with other people when they become adults. We can’t let that kind of misery perpetuate itself.”
It seems that the failure of the local children’s center to get involved has played a role in the worsening of the situation. If so, who is there who can protect them? This is case of child sexual assault but no experts are involved.
“If the center had been offering counseling from the start the problem would not have gotten as big as it has. That’s because with the parents of the victimizers saying there was no sexual assault, everyone was given a pass for it. If you let off the hook the ones at the center of the problem, you can’t pursue the issue.
When kids tell them they want to be safe, educators are open about not being up to the task but id they kids don’t then they don’t say anything. Can they say that the kids didn’t say anything, that nothing happened, that there was no sexual violence? Out of the kids who told what happened, some have broken arms and others don’t want to go home. They saw others get grabbed by the throat and asked ‘what did you say?’ The older kids told them to go off and die, how can they tell adults about such things?
Teachers asking, ‘are you having trouble? I can help you. Or who would you like to have help you?’ and having a checklist and checking on the kids, is that really the work of experts? As time passes and the problem gets more complex, it should bring home the fact that experts in child sexual assault are needed.”
Isn’t it bad for schools to deal with the issue of child sexual assault by themselves? I wonder if they don’t need a manual about the subject, and if there shouldn’t be aid from the Office of Education and a team of experts.
“I think it’s not desirable for schools to intervene in a sexual assault first. When this issue was first discovered a school violence committee was opened, and over 10 school authorities are on it. People in government positions don’t have the children’s best interests at heart. They ask if it’s going to be their responsibility if property values fall. School committees judge things according to their own understanding. And it isn’t good for it to be kept secret. That’s just not good.
But when teachers learn of the problem they don’t report it to the school or Office of Education. There should be an outside system in use. If the school learns of it first it seems that nothing is done. They cover it up, and people help them do so. A bureaucratic atmosphere takes hold.
A greater problem than not having a system is when there is one but it is not used. Putting together a local policy board at the school is a democratic method, but if they’re concerned over local property values it’s a different story.
This is because the principal has to investigate an incident of child sexual assault and then go to the Office of Education and if he reports it, it’s a minus for him. Teachers who present problems also get low evaluations, and are criticized for not teaching correctly. So when an incident of sexual assault happens the other teachers will say, ‘do I have to report it too?’
This case is affecting other teachers in the area. Parents are threatening to go to the school and pull out the teacher’s hair, saying that the school is getting a bad name because of you, calling the teacher a liar. The teacher is having a difficult time and cries every day. This just seems like the opposite of what should happen when you tell the truth and the teacher is feeling greatly persecuted.”
To deal with and prevent issues of child sexual assault what should schools, Offices of Education, and our society do?
“The Office of Education should not take over the investigation. That’s where the cover-up starts. They start by looking at who can be crucified. It’s better if they don’t take things over, work together on policy, and think about the children. It shouldn’t be like now, where it’s ‘should we transfer them, or fire them?’ but the school should work with experts on what to do and NGOs and the government would have to stay out.
If there is any change to come out of this problem, it should be that other schools in the Daegu area should put more emphasis on sex education. I think that if kids are not given sex education this kind of incident will occur, and if early responses are not made then experts will not be consulted, and the problem will grow.
But at this school it appears that this was not a part of teachers’ duties and thought was not given to the children. And in our society there is almost no awareness of childrens’ rights and people don’t agree that ‘children should be brought up socially’. These are big problems.
Children can’t spend their whole lives as victimizers or as victims. Living your whole life as a sex criminal, that’s not what anybody wants. If kids become victimizers their spirit will someday suddenly leave them, so eventually their interconnected, structural problems have to be solved. And the victims may blame themselves or lose their self-esteem, and to prevent that they need therapy and help. If that aid continues to be offered to them, they can get to the core of the problem.”
I’ve lost the link, but a different article from The Hankyoreh got this great quote from Jo Yun-seok, chair of an organization supposedly tasked with dealing with school violence: “Today in that school there are neither victims nor victimizers.”