Bullies beget bullies
But the teenager’s personality changed dramatically in response to systematic bullying at a middle school on Jeju Island.
The bullying peaked when Choi was forced to strip and made to stand at the back of the classroom.
Choi, currently on suspension from school, started to lash out. He slapped his mother, something that anyone who knew Choi before the bullying started could not believe he’d do, and smashed crockery in the kitchen at home.
So overwhelming was his treatment at the hands of his classmates that he resorted to self harm, rubbing soap and toothpaste into his eyes.
Choi’s story was documented last week on SBS-TV’s “SOS 24,” in which a team of investigators concluded that Choi’s dramatic transformation was probably caused by stress and acute frustration resulting from his treatment at the hands of school bullies.
Yet despite his mother’s insistence that the school should have done more to help her son, Choi’s teacher evaded responsibility.
“Other classmates bully each other, too,” the teacher said during an interview with the investigative team. “It’s not a big deal.”
An expert on school violence who was part of the TV program’s investigative team and did not disclose his name was less dismissive of school bullying.
“The victim learns from the bully and bullies other classmates who are powerless,” he said.
According to an online consultation company for victims of bullying, Cyber Wangdda ― wangdda means bullied victims in Korea ― an average of 60 to 90 cases of bullying appear on the company’s Web site each month.
Those posting the stories are mainly elementary or middle school students.
“I’ve been constantly bullied by fellow classmates,” wrote a 12-year-old requesting an online consultation with one of Cyber Wangdda’s 12 volunteer consultants, who are qualified counselors.
“Last time, they ran away with my cell phone without my permission. I never got it back,” he continued.
Though angry, he said he was helpless to do anything. If he raised his voice, he would have been bullied even more, he reckoned.
“I’m worried about the new semester that starts next week,” he wrote. “My friends have been telling me that I will never escape from getting bullied.”
After much deliberation, he finally told his parents. They immediately called their child’s teacher, who reprimanded the bullies.
“But how much impact does a teacher’s words have on students these days? No solutions were found,” the 12-year-old wrote.
Heo Seon-suk, a 55-year-old elementary school teacher, agrees, pointing out that controlling students has become more difficult and teachers these days command less respect.
“What a teacher said really mattered to students until two decades ago,” Heo said, noting how there were fewer victims of bullies in the past.
“Hardly any students were ever left out of the group,” she said. “But with today’s low birthrate, parents tend to concentrate their attention on their one child and this tends to make kids more individualistic. As a result kids can sometimes have problems making friends and mingling.”
Some parents even delay sending their kids to school to lessen the chances that they will become bully victims. They assume, with some justification, that smaller children are more vulnerable to attack.
According to Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education, increasing numbers of children are starting school later.
In 2004, 11,649 preschool children delayed starting school, but that number increased to 17,700 in 2007, which constitutes 10.4 percent of the total number of students in Gyeonggi.
As a possible solution, Cyber Wangdda urges children and parents to seek online counseling as a way to overcome fears.
Cyber Wangdda has been running a survey on what children want from cyber counseling, with a particular focus on bullying.
As of 2007, 624 out of 862 students under 18 who visited the Web site and took part in the online survey said friendship counseling is urgently needed to protect them against bullies.
But few students are familiar with the idea of sharing their concerns through an online chat facility, and around 600 said they have never received counseling before.
The elementary school teacher, Heo, says any kind of counseling is crucial in combating bullying among young children. Without this kind of intervention, more serious social problems can develop.
“If the victims don’t get help early on, they might suffer severe side effects in the future.
In her teaching career, Heo has come across several children who have been bullied. She’s always worried that when they leave school, they could become social outsiders or develop aggressive tendencies, causing relationship troubles.
Her fears might be justified, judging by recent stories in the news: Incidences of workplace bullying show that bullying is not confined to schools. Seoul District Court awarded 20 million won ($21,080) in compensation this month to an LG Electronics employee called Chung.
The court said that collective bullying in the office had caused Chung’s depression.
Dorothy Espelage, a professor of child development at the department of educational psychology of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says there is no singular reason why people get bullied or become bullies.
The professor visited Korea this month to raise awareness and address bullying issues in Korea.
Kim Hyun-jung, the deputy director of Samjeon Health Center that operates the Cyber Wangdda Company, said that parents are increasingly involved in their children’s school environment and are aware of the bullying issue.
“The place where youngsters are most prone to getting bullied is at school,” Kim said. “School bullying then carries on to other places like private learning institutes.”
Kim said bullying used to be more verbal, but now there are more incidences of cyber bullying.
“Students bully by sending rude text messages and sending emotionally damaging e-mails,” Kim said.
Cyber bullying is becoming a threat because bullies can group together anonymously and gang up on an individual without fear of recrimination.
It’s also easy to do: With so many cell phones and so much Internet access, electronic bullying is faceless and difficult to track.
And the victims are very isolated since they often get the texts and emails when they alone.
Espelage argues that it is difficult for younger victims to protect themselves from bullying and says adults should intervene.
“Aggression is adaptive,” Espelage said. “Parents and teachers need to talk to kids [because] they want to feel connected.”
Just in case, parents can take out insurance against bullying.
“Parents anxious that their children could get bullied can take out Children’s Insurance, which covers emotional stress and suffering caused by bullying,” said Chang Ki-myung, the PR manager at Kumho Life Insurance.
“The company pays compensation for accidents, maladies and emotional fatigue,” he said.
Last year, Kumho Life Insurance sold 18,177 Children Insurance packages. “More people pay for the insurance from March to May when the new academic year begins,” Chang said.
But insurance won’t prevent bullying. “Primary prevention is most important,” Espelage said. “You need to prevent the forest fire before the whole forest burns down.”
By Lee Eun-joo Contributing Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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