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School CP - December 2001

Korea Herald, Seoul, 11 December 2001

Corporal punishment still contentious issue in Korea

By Yoo Soh-jung
Staff reporter

Corporal punishment in school touches off heated arguments in Korean society, where many old people still hold to Confucian ways and a growing number of young students disregard the traditions their parents and teachers grew up with.

There have been cases of students calling the police emergency number with their mobile phones after being struck by teachers. Teachers ended up in police custody.

These cases usually make headlines in newspapers, sparking intense debate between those who defend the students' actions and those who criticize them for going too far.

Shin Ghee-hee, the 37-year-old mother of a 9-year-old boy, is one of an increasing number of Korean parents who oppose corporal punishment in the classroom.

"Hitting students is not a simple practice anymore, because more and more students and parents don't believe you can bring about positive changes in the students through physical pain," said Shin, a member of a national parents' activist group.

In recent years, the number of parents like Shin, who have lost faith in the age-old custom of corporal punishment, has increased.

"When I was growing up, parents and students scarcely complained to their teacher about his or her method of discipline, even if it involved severe physical punishment," said 43-year-old Lee Hee-su, the mother of a first-year high school student in Seoul.

"But times are changing, and I don't think punishment should involve physical contact," Lee said.

The Korean Federation of Teachers' Associations (KFTA) said it received reports of 56 cases of parent-teacher disputes in the first half of this year, a 24.4 percent increase from 45 cases reported during the same period last year.

Corporal punishment topped the list of causes for this year's disputes, accounting for 19, or 34 percent, of the 56 cases, KFTA officials said.

A study showed that the rise in conflicts between teachers and parents, as well as students, stemmed from a breakdown of traditional values deeply rooted in Korea's Confucian culture.

The 1999 study, conducted by a group of nongovernmental organizations, including the KFTA and the National Council of Youth Organizations in Korea, found that out of 1500 teachers and 1500 students surveyed nationwide, 49.6 percent of the teachers and 32.5 percent of the students claimed their relationship involves nothing more than teaching and learning.

"The emergence of such a relationship defies the old custom, where students once looked upon their teacher as a wise master, who could even be more revered and trusted than their own parents," said Lee Sung-jae, an official of the KFTA.

"Most teachers have lost their authority over the children," Lee said.

"Teachers are having a tough time controlling the students' behavior, and some ultimately end up reporting their teachers to authorities on the emergency police hotline," he said.

Many students, of course, do not accept corporal punishment.

"I don't think hitting students will help them smarten up, because some could either rebel out of rage, while some could just be indifferent," said 17-year-old Yeo In-hee. "Besides, there are some teachers who have firm control over their students without ever resorting to physical punishment, so hitting isn't the only solution."

But there are students who think otherwise.

"It's all right for teachers to beat their students, as long as they know why they're being scolded," said Choi Sun-hee, a high school student. "With all the unruly students these days, physical punishment is important in the school."

Choi's view is echoed by some parents.

"When I was growing up, teachers were looked up to. We couldn't even look at them straight in the eye out of respect," said Kim Suk-hee, a mother of a 13-year-old son. "With children becoming more and more liberal in their attitudes and ways of life, I think the old system of corporal punishment should be maintained, as long as it is not abused."

In 1999, the Ministry of Education tightened regulations on corporal punishment, permitting it only as a last resort. With the change, each school drafts its own set of rules on punishment, in consultation with students and parents. Some basic prohibitions for most schools include slapping the face, caning for personal reasons, or using corporal punishment in an irrational manner that risks leaving emotional scars or hurting the individual's dignity, according to officials.

Despite such conditions, there are many alternatives to physical punishment, Lee Hee-su said. "There are so many other ways to punish children, such as making them clean the classroom for two weeks, or run around the school yard about 10 times," she said.

Although educators' authority over children has diminished over the past 20 to 30 years, physical punishment will continue as an effective form of discipline, according to an expert.

"Hitting will remain a forceful means of getting an instant outcome, even for students in high school," said Hwang Sang-min, a professor of psychology at Yonsei University. "But for corporal punishment to work, communication between teacher and student is needed, and the student must understand what he or she did wrong," Prof. Hwang said.

The professor, however, noted that when it comes to treating chronic problems, such as making a student study hard, physical punishment could be ineffective.

Lee of the KFTA said corporal punishment, in the form of caning, would be a part of Korea's educational system for some time, unless there is a radical change in the country's culture.

"But the old custom of entrusting children to teachers with hopes of making them into respectable members of society has got to change, especially in this age of globalization. Caning is a thing of the past," Shin Ghee-hee said.

2001.12.11 (C) Copyright 2000 Digital Korea Herald. All rights reserved.

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