Sticks and stones may break bones but bullies need to be heard
The Korean entertainment industry has been riddled with a series of bullying allegations against celebrities since mid-February and while it might not be the first time such allegations have arisen, it is certainly the biggest bullying scandal to date. The public has reacted with criticism and anger, but experts are stressing that this scandal needs to be properly addressed.
This particular series of allegations initially started in early February in the sporting world, when twin volleyball players Lee Jae-young and Lee Da-young were accused of bullying their classmates in middle school, even threatening them with a knife on one occasion. The twins admitted that the claims were true and were indefinitely suspended from the national volleyball team and club matches.
The twins’ scandal sparked a chain of bullying allegations against celebrities. Big names including actors Park Hye-soo, Jo Byung-gyu, Kim Dong-hee and Ji Soo along with idol singers Soojin of (G)I-DLE, Mingyu of Seventeen and many more have all been accused of school violence. Most of the accused stars are staunchly denying the allegations and taking legal action, while Hyunjin of boy band Stray Kids officially apologized and suspended all his activities.
The public is split on whether to believe the alleged victims and “cancel” the accused celebrities, or to remain neutral until further evidence surfaces; especially after some claims were debunked. However, some accusations have gained credibility as more victims and witnesses speak up.
Those in the midst of growing allegations are at risk of losing their careers. Park’s upcoming TV series “Dear. M” and Jo’s upcoming entertainment show “Come Back Home” have both been postponed indefinitely, while Soojin and Hyunjin’s appearances on shows have all been canceled. Dongsuh Foods Corporation halted all advertisements featuring Naeun, a member of girl group April, who was also accused of bullying her former classmate, while the group as a whole is currently under public scrutiny for allegedly bullying a former member.
“We’ve come a long way from the days of dismissing school violence as kids pulling pranks,” said Noh Yoon-ho, an attorney at Law Firm April who specializes in bullying cases.
“People now perceive bullying as a serious social problem, especially since 2012 when the government established the current legal system on how to handle school violence.” The establishment was the result of a 14-year-old student taking his own life in 2011 due to severe bullying.
Korea’s “Act on the Prevention of and Countermeasures against Violence in Schools” defines school violence to include any physical, verbal or mental abuse that happens between first and 12th grade resulting in bodily, psychological or financial harm.
“Everyone had his or her school days,” said Noh, “and most have either directly experienced or indirectly witnessed bullying. That’s why so many people relate to the alleged victims' pain and feel strong anger toward the accused celebrities.”
“Many victims try to forget the painful memories and move on,” said counselor Yoon Ho-soon of the Bright Future Youth Mind counseling center in Jung District, central Seoul. “But when they see others come forward with similar experiences, they recall their memories and feel angry together.” Yoon has worked with both victims and perpetrators of school violence for the past 25 years.
“Simply put, people don’t want to see a bully on TV, be it their own or someone else’s,” said pop culture critic Ha Jae-keun. “Nowadays, the public considers a bullying scandal to be just as bad as an illegal gambling or drug abuse scandal. Gambling and drugs destroy the celebrity’s own life, but bullying hurts someone else, which might actually infuriate the public more.”
Why speak out now?
Some question why accusers are exposing their childhood bullies many years later: Why did they not report the bullying when it was happening? Overzealous fans go so far as to accuse the alleged victims' of being jealous of the stars' success or trying to extort money from them.
“Although there is a legal system to resolve school violence cases, victims are often too afraid to speak up or even threatened to stay silent,” said Noh.
Kim Ju-yeon, an illustrator in her 20s, shared with the Korea JoongAng Daily why she did not report a case of school violence that happened to her in high school.
“Once I refused to give money to two local bullies,” she said, “and they grabbed each of my arms and dragged me into an alleyway. They eventually let me go, but I cried my eyes out.”
Despite being shaken, Kim says notifying the authorities never crossed her mind. “I was too young to think of that as an option. There was also no evidence since it was in an alleyway. Plus, what if the bullies came after me to retaliate? I was so afraid they might ambush me again.”
Even when students do make reports, authorities often fail to handle cases adequately.
“The process of reporting bullying is extremely simple: Call 117 [bullying hotline] or inform any teacher at the school,” said Yoon. “However, teachers often do not have the time or skills necessary to handle school violence cases. After all, teachers are there to teach, not to resolve bullying.”
Yoon said that while most teachers try their best, some teachers downplay or cover up victims' reports, fearing they may negatively affect their own evaluations.
“That destroys the students’ trust in the system, and they feel like making a report won't solve anything,” she said.
In fact, many victims later seek to take legal action against their former bullies when they gain more courage and resources as an adult. Noh has many adult clients who visit her, only to learn that most of them cannot do anything due to lack of evidence or expiration of the statute of limitations.
“Every time a former bully is on TV, it’s like renewed violence for the victims,” Yoon said. “They can’t bear to watch their bullies succeed as a celebrity without facing any consequences, when they are still dealing with pain.”
“When victims cannot make their bullies face legal consequences, they often feel that their last resort is to make them face social consequences,” said Noh. “Hence, they turn to exposing their bullies online, and often times social consequences are indeed harsher than criminal punishment.”
A second chance
Even if the allegations are proven true, some believe the perpetrators should not be judged too harshly for their childhood mistakes. Second chances, however, seem unlikely according to Ha.
“When an accusation turns out to be true, the accused celebrity’s career is virtually over,” he said. “It’s a severe blow to their public image. Former bullies may now be too afraid to even set foot in the entertainment world.”
Yoon says such “cancel culture” approach may give a dangerous impression to young perpetrators of school violence.
“When I work with convicted bullies who are still in school, I often see them think, ‘My life is over; why should I even try to behave better and be successful?’” said Yoon. “They fear the stigma will follow them forever, no matter what they do. This may lead them to give up on their lives and commit more acts of violence.”
“Bullying is without doubt a serious offense which hurts victims in their formative years, but the perpetrators are in their formative years as well,” Yoon added. “Neither side has psychologically matured yet. So do bullies not deserve to do anything for the rest of their lives? I’m not sure about that.”
Experts say regardless of what happens to the celebrities, the issue of school violence needs to be addressed.
“These victims couldn’t make reports in the past for whatever reason, but from now on [society should] actively encourage students to report bullying and get help within the existing system,” said Noh. “The lesson is that bullies should’ve faced consequences at the time, not years later in the form of exposés, for the sake of both the victim and the bully.”
To encourage victims, Yoon says restoring students’ faith in the system is key.
“The fact that many students choose to speak up online years later rather than report to authorities means they’re living in an untrustworthy system,” Yoon said.
Yoon suggests schools and local education offices hire personnel that take charge of bullying cases and nothing else, so they can fully focus on resolving cases and show students a system that works.
In fact, highly publicized accounts of bullying like the ones we are seeing now create an ideal opportunity to analyze how the system failed, says Yoon.
“Now we know there were holes in the system. We need to analyze the details of those stories in depth and identify the reason they weren’t resolved properly back then,” she said.
For that process, Yoon stresses the importance of an unlikely participant — the bully. Once an accusation is deemed true, the public is mostly unwilling to accept any words from the accused celebrity, dismissing them as excuses. But Yoon says the perpetrators’ side of the story is also necessary to figure out flaws in the system.
“The bully is also part of the story of how the system failed. So we need to listen to the accused star even after an allegation turns out to be true,” she said. “Even as we rage at those stories, similar stories are happening right now.”
Without further discussion on what this scandal implies, experts say the public will eventually forget about it, like any other scandal.
BY HALEY YANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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