‘I felt fear of being buried alive’
By Na Jeong-ju
When Park (alias), a 16-year-old high school student in Daegu, received a call from one of his school seniors in October, he thought there would be another get-together among schoolmates to smoke, drink and meet girls.
The school senior, identified as Ko, took Park to a hill overlooking the school, where they used to sniff glue and share money they had extorted from younger students.
When Park arrived there, a group of other seniors were digging a hole in the ground. He asked them what it was for. A senior suddenly slapped on his face and said, “We are going to plant you here. You should pay the price for being rude to us.”
Park was dragged into the hole. He screamed and begged for forgiveness, but the seniors started to cover him up with earth, cursing loudly. They buried him up to his neck for 30 minutes and even urinated upon his face.
“I felt the fear of being buried alive. I was chilled to the bone at the time,” Park said in a telephone interview. “They told me that they were reenacting a scene in a gangster movie. I was very terrified.”
After being released, he reported them to police. “They beat me for a long time after taking me out of the hole and threatened to kill me if I report it, but I did,” he said.
Last week, police requested arrest warrants for Ko and three others, but the court rejected them, considering that they were students and had repented what they had done to Park. They will, however, be indicted without physical detention, said an officer of Suseong Police Station.
“Park’s case is not just an example of extreme violence at school. We were very surprised at the manner they had harassed their peers. They were nothing but cruel, cold-blooded gangsters,” the officer said on condition of anonymity.
While investigating Park’s case, detectives uncovered that they adopted various methods to intimidate classmates and extort money from them.
Last year, the perpetrators used a crane to lift two students and left them in mid-air for two hours just because they didn’t “show respect” to them. Some students had their pubic hair burnt with a lighter and then were thrown into water.
They even poured human excrement on a student while he was taking a shower.
“The problem was that the perpetrators were formally victims. As juniors, they were harassed and tortured by seniors, but they did the same to their juniors after becoming seniors. Such bullying methods were being passed down,” the officer said.
Teachers at the school reportedly knew about the violence, but took little countermeasures, according to Park.
“I first sought help from teachers, but gave up after finding out that they were also afraid of the seniors and didn’t want to intervene,” Park said. “They just told me that I should take care of myself and be friendly to them.”
Park’s parents are now considering suing two teachers for neglect of duty. Police said they were investigating the teachers and school owners.
Keeping it secret
Experts say Park’s case shows that school brutality is not just a matter for students, teachers and parents, but a big concern that all of society must urgently tackle.
“School education has become more important as both parents work in most families these days. But our system has failed to deal with such a social trend,” said Baek Seung-dae, a sociology professor at Yeungnam University.
“Many primary and secondary schools do not provide sufficient and specialized anti-violence programs. Park’s case is only the tip of the iceberg. Similar cases can happen at any school.”
A recent survey of some 3,500 elementary, middle and high school students showed up to 22 percent had been attacked or bullied by their peers in the past year and 10 percent of them thought about killing themselves more than once due to the violence.
The survey also found that the current anti-school violence programs don’t teach students how to cope with school violence and crime. Among students who have experienced school violence, 45.9 percent said they just kept the experience a secret rather than seeking help from other people.
“It’s true that most of the victims are reluctant to tell their parents for various reasons. We must address this problem,” Baek said.
Early this month, the government announced a set of measures to root out bullying, empowering principals to suspend violent pupils from school and to institute an alert system for organized student gangs.
Other highlights of the package included tougher punishment for teachers covering up cases of bullying and hazing and quicker intervention by police officers to protect victims.
The measures came after a middle school student in Daegu, identified as Kim, killed himself in December after being brutally bulled by his classmates for months. According to police, Kim had been beaten on numerous occasions by two classmates. An autopsy result showed that he had bruises on his back, buttocks and thighs. The perpetrators told police that they beat Kim at school and his home when his parents were out.
Kim’s suicide caused huge public uproar and educational authorities have been under heavy fire for their poor handling of violence at schools.
The education ministry plans to hire some 2,000 professional consultants and send them to schools nationwide this year so that students can more easily access necessary counseling.
Penalties for violent behavior will also be documented on school records, which will be kept for five years for primary and middle school students, and 10 years for high school students after graduation.
“In cooperation with police, we will have more police officers patrol schools to prevent possible cases of bullying and help victims. Principals and teachers will also be given greater authority and responsibility in dealing with violent pupils,” a ministry official said.
Many experts on school violence, however, say it is important for teachers to share a common belief that prevention is a much more efficient way than punishment or discipline.
Roh Ji-ae, a teacher in Busan who has continued a campaign to root out school violence, said juvenile crimes cannot be eliminated by only strict regulations and punishment.
“Paying keen attention consistently to students is more important than anything else in preventing violence at schools,” Roh said. “The matter can be resolved through cooperation among all those concerned ― parents, teachers, the government, and people in the community.”