Sex crimes at schools left unchecked

A group of high school teachers hang out at a local karaoke bar. One of the teachers, a man in his 50s, approaches a female teacher in her 30s and invites her to dance the blues with him. She rejects, but the man does not take no for an answer and the playful approach turns into an ugly scuffle involving unwanted physical contact, buttons torn apart and the victim striking the attacker with a microphone.

All of thishappened with around 10 of their colleagues watching, including the school principal.

“I was so shocked when I finally hit (the attacker) with the mic and the principal grabbed me (from hitting him further),” the victim recently told local media, adding that the principal did nothing to prevent the harassment from happening in the first place.

The principal of the school ― located in Seodaemun-gu, central Seoul ― attempted to hush up the incident, to which the teachers reluctantly agreed, according to an anonymous source claiming to have a personal connection to the principal.

When the case finally came to light in May after another teacher reported it to the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, it was found to be only one of hundreds of other sexual harassment cases alleged to have occurred at the school.

Five male teachers ― including the principal ― were accused of being involved in verbal and physical harassment against some eight teachers and more than 100 students.

After a two-month investigation, the SMOE filed charges against the teachers to the local police, who began investigating the case last week.

The case also shed light on unchecked sex crimes at schools and the lack of preventive and reprimand measures.

While the karaoke incident took place more than a year ago in February 2014, the offender got away with a slap on the wrist, by being put on sick leave for about a year before he was transferred to another school.

As public outcry grew, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Education Ministry and the SMOE last week vowed a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual predators in schools, including a one-strike rule that would ban teachers convicted of a sex crime from teaching again.

The revision will also include immediately removing a teacher accused of sexual abuse from his or her post, and mandating the school committee reach a decision on the punishment within 30 days, shortened from the current regulation of 60 days.

The measures, however, invited more criticism for having come too late, while exposing how weak the anti-sex crime measures in school had been.

Loopholes in the current law had been making it particularly hard to protect teachers from abuse. Relevant laws including the Act on the Prevention of and Countermeasures against Violence in Schools stipulate that a teacher who committed a sex crime against a minor can be fired immediately, but there is no such clause covering sex crimes against adults.

Even in the case of a sex crime against a minor, the teacher can still retain his or her license unless he or she is sentenced with a fine of 1 million won or more.

In addition, the law mandates the offender should be removed from the school only after the teacher is charged, meaning the alleged victim and the attacker could remain at the same school for several months.

Punishment against those who committed sex crimes have also been criticized as being lenient.

According to Education Ministry data revealed by Rep. Han Sun-kyo of the Saenuri Party, 231 teachers have received disciplinary actions from January 2011 to June this year. But more than half, or 123, are still teaching at schools.

In January, an Incheon court sentenced an English teacher to a 10 million won ($8,600) fine for touching his 16-year-old student’s thigh because she was “not concentrating in class.” The court said it handed down a lighter punishment because the accused had no criminal record.

“Repeat crimes are more common among sex criminals than others. This begs the question of whether it is okay to let sex offenders return to their teaching posts,” said Rep. Han.

After the nationwide furor incited by the Seodaemun-gu school incident, the authorities vowed to change the law to allow immediate removal of all sex offenders and to ban anyone with a history of sex crime from becoming a teacher. The Education Ministry said it would implement a system where victims can directly report the sex crimes to the authorities.

But teachers remain skeptical about whether the new measures will encourage victims to come forward.

Some also questioned the legal jurisdiction of the new measures to be enforced by the administrative sector, as it could run counter to the presumption of innocence until found guilty by the judiciary.

A 25-year-old teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, said she and her colleagues often felt “discomfort” at the actions of other teachers but have been reluctant to point them out.

“If the accused can return to school at any time, who would want to alert the authorities?” she said. She added that even if the direct reporting system was implemented, the victims would be hard-pressed to place their faith on the anonymity that the system claims to provide.

“A school is a small place. Everyone pretty much knows what went on between people, and it’s only a matter of time before word gets out that somebody blew the whistle,” she said.

An official from the Korean Women’s Development Institute pointed out that while many of the sex crime cases in schools go through the school disciplinary committee, the school’s priority is often to downplay the case to protect its reputation.

Teachers say the scariest element about school sex crimes is that repetition and tolerance may lead to misperception about what is right and wrong.

The victimized teacher at the Seodaemun-gu school told local media that sexual harassment had become somewhat of a “culture” at the school.

“At first, students were so shocked to hear about the (verbal harassment), but soon they became accustomed to it. Their perception of what was right and wrong was clouded, as (sex abuse) became the norm. I don’t know how we can fix that,” she said.