Pressure grows for bullying records to inform HE admissions

South Korea’s Ministry of Education is planning to strengthen measures related to school bullying records and their consideration during university admission applications after the appointment of a new national investigation chief was cancelled following revelations he was involved in a lawsuit against his son’s forced school transfer for bullying.

President Yoon Suk-yeol on 24 February appointed former prosecutor Chung Sun-sin as director of South Korea’s National Office of Investigation overseeing police investigations. But Chung withdrew the next day after severe public criticism for defending his son’s high school bullying in court.

His son eventually entered the country’s most prestigious university Seoul National University (SNU) despite being sanctioned by his former school for misconduct.

According to school records and court documents, Chung’s son verbally abused one of his high school peers continuously for eight months in 2017 when he was in Grade 10, causing the victim severe psychological trauma that reportedly led to an attempted suicide.

When his son was ordered by the school violence resolution committee to transfer out of the school, Chung, acting as his son’s legal representative, filed an administrative lawsuit against the school to stop the transfer, and went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court upheld the school committee’s decision and Chung’s son had to move to another school in 2019.

Although Chung lost the court case, his son entered SNU based on his results in the country’s competitive national college entrance exams. SNU reported to the education ministry that they had considered the bullying record during the admission process. However, it was later revealed that the university only deducted one point from the 400-point total test score.

Opposition takes a strong line

Kang Deuk-gu, a National Assembly representative of the opposition Democratic Party, proposed a so-called “Chung Sun-sin’s Son Prevention Bill” at a press conference at the assembly on 28 February that would make it compulsory for students’ school bullying records to be considered as part of the regular university admissions process.

Kang also proposed mandatory checks of school bullying records of the children of high government officials before they are appointed to public positions, noting that some use their wealth and influence to oppose school rulings on bullying by going to court.

Kang provided data from metropolitan and provincial offices of education on requests for “suspension of administrative action” brought by parents or guardians of the offenders to stop the decisions of school violence resolution committees being carried out. These make up 57.9% of such cases.

Kang said that as a result “offenders stay at the same school while the litigation, based on the economic power of the offenders’ parents, goes on and this causes additional damage to the victims”.

The Ministry of Education on 22 February – just days before the announcement of Chung’s appointment – had already suggested changes in maintaining school bullying records. The ministry suggested bullying records be kept for two years in cases of a forced school transfer or switching classes to separate the offender from the victim.

Chung’s son’s record was deleted after he graduated from high school. While in his case, the deletion of records had no bearing on his admission to SNU, there is concern that missing records may have an impact in other cases.

Strengthening record-keeping

While attending a meeting related to school bullying on 6 March, Education Minister Lee Ju-ho said his ministry would “review the inadequate measures in the policy, including strengthening the record-keeping of severe bullying cases”.

During his first term in office as education minister in 2012, Lee had tried to bring in mandatory keeping of school bullying records and the need for them to be reflected in the university admissions process, but this was opposed at the time by progressive elected superintendents of provincial offices of education and the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union, and it never came into effect.

While preferential university admissions for the offspring of public officials always attracts public attention, the Chung family case in particular has sparked a nationwide controversy as it comes in the wake of popular South Korean Netflix drama The Glory released earlier this year about a bullying victim who, many years later, takes revenge on her school’s bullies whose ringleader was from a powerful family and lived a successful life despite her history of bullying.

Leader of the Democratic Party in the legislature, Park Hong-keun, told the media on the day Chung withdrew: “I recalled the recent drama The Glory as this shows how social power is [used for] covering up children’s misbehaviour. This is not about a political view, as you can see all the public rage online.”

Lee Man-ki, vice-president of Uway Educational Assessment Research Institute, told University World News: “Public opinion wants stronger measures on bullies. They want the system to be strengthened so that universities can check all the school bullying records, even years after graduation.”

Concerns about stronger rules

Despite public opinion being favourable, there are concerns about Education Minister Lee’s bid to strengthen the rules.

Song Kyung-won, policy representative of the Justice Party, said: “Taking stern measures might be necessary, but using the records in university admissions can be a double punishment, so administrative litigation might increase as it did when school bullying started to be recorded.”

Of 17 provincial offices of education, 11 responded negatively to a legislative bill tabled in the assembly in April 2022 which was proposed by representative Cho Kyoung-tae of the ruling People Power Party that would require record-keeping for up to 10 years.

In a statement against the bill, the provincial education offices said: “The damage caused to the careers of students by penalties in education and employment is significantly higher than the achievable public interest.”

The Ministry of Education is planning to revise its “Comprehensive Measures to Eradicate School Violence”, which is the national policy on school bullying dating from 2012.

After Chung’s resignation, the ministry said during the weekly press briefing on 27 February: “The current school violence prevention plan was implemented more than 10 years ago, so it is time to review it. We will discuss the concerns and calls for improvement related to the recent issue.”

Deputy Education Minister Jang Sang-yoon said during the National Assembly’s education committee plenary, while answering questions about how Chung’s son was able to enter SNU despite his bullying history: “The ministry will hear your opinions about reflecting school bullying records in regular admission processes.”

Lee Do-woon, the spokesperson for the office of President Yoon, told the media on the same day that the president had ordered the ministry to prepare comprehensive measures to stamp out school bullying.