[The Korea Herald] Is Seoul’s student rights ordinance good policy?

The subject of education exercises Korean society like few other topics. A student rights ordinance passed by the Seoul education office became a major clash point between conservatives and liberals in early 2012. — John.

By John Power

In an election year, little can be considered above ideological conflict. Education is no exception.

An ordinance on student rights, passed by Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education late last month, is the latest source of controversy within an education system recently rocked by extreme bullying and student suicides.

Liberal superintendent Kwak No-hyun, returning to work after being fined for bribery during his 2010 election campaign, proclaimed the passage of the Ordinance for Students’ Human Rights as a “historic event.” The Ministry of Education Science and Technology, teachers’ groups and many conservatives see it differently. Arguing that the ordinance will lead to confusion within schools and strip teachers of authority, the Education Ministry has taken the case to the Supreme Court to have it overturned.

“I can say that we sympathize with the spirit of the ordinance, that we understand student rights already exist in the Constitution and law. (But) the Ministry of Education is afraid the ordinance might hinder or restrict school autonomy in Seoul. Because it stresses only students’ rights, not students’ responsibilities. We think they should put a more balanced rights and responsibilities (approach in place),” an Education Ministry official who did not wish to be named told Voice.

The ordinance, which bans corporal punishment and discrimination against homosexual and pregnant students, and allows students to protest on school grounds and choose their own hairstyle and dress, follows similarly controversial decrees in Gyeonggi Province and Gwangju Metropolitan City, also in the name of students’ human rights.

Jung Un-soo, International coordinator of the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Association, campaigned for an ordinance on student rights in the early 1990s. But he said the ordinance passed by SMOE has little to do with the cause he fought for.

“ … This policy is clearly something driven by a political agenda regarding the organizational gains involved in the election of provincial superintendents, and with no regards to the actual human rights of students,” Jung said.

Jung said the KFTA is firmly against the “deceptive” ordinance on judicial and pragmatic grounds as well as out of concern for students.

Civic activists protest the student rights ordinance in Seoul. (Yonhap News)

“If someone in the school discriminates against students or violates their human rights, they can be punished by law. So to insist that this ordinance is necessary to protect human rights of students is a total lie. Moreover, we are giving each school the right to enact and amend its regulations according to the ‘Enforcement Decree of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act’ so schools can restrict the freedom of some students in cases to protect the human rights of other students. But this ordinance is limiting the rights of individual schools ― and its students ― to decide their rights and responsibilities on their own.”

Jung further objects to the way the measure was passed. He has particularly harsh words for the Seoul head of education, convicted of bribing an electoral rival to drop out of the race for the post.

“Superintendent Kwak has been convicted for bribery with the highest fine allowed in the law. This sentence makes the election invalid. The reason Kwak is not out of his post is that there was an appeal to the higher court. But someone who was already convicted for bribery in the first trial, and who was clearly involved in the corruption of an election, can’t be a chief of education. What shall children learn from him? They will learn that you can be a superintendent through bribery if you have 200 million won. That’s what the students are saying nowadays in schools.

“What Kwak has to do now is not to enforce his election pledges, or political deals in other words. What he has to do is to step down from his post, and say sorry for the corruption of the election and the harm he has caused in the schools. That is what an educator should do. He is now just revealing that he is no kind of educator but just a political fraud.”

But Chang Suh-yeon, of Gong-Gam Korean Public Interest Lawyers’ Group, said that Kwak’s conviction is a separate issue from the ordinance.

“The bribery is not directly related to the ordinance. It was the opinion of 97,000 Seoul citizens (who signed a petition) who wanted the ordinance enacted, so it was through a legal procedure that it was possible,” Chang said.
Chang said that student rights have been ignored for too long in schools across the nation, resulting in an abnormally high suicide rate among students. The issue of school violence and its possible effects became a topic of national conversation after details of a Daegu student’s suicide note became public in December.

“I can’t understand how people could be against something as self-evident as ‘all students have the right to be free from violence,’” Chang said. “In 1991, Korea joined the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, and according to article 6 of the Constitution, the U.N. convention should have the same weight as national law. The U.N. committee on children has demanded that all corporal punishment be banned by law and they advised the Korean government this on several occasions. In this and day age it doesn’t make any sense that a teacher should use corporal punishment as discipline.”

For Chang, it is also important to allow students express their individuality.

“All human beings have the right to express themselves but due to the militarized culture resulting from Japanese colonialism, students have been forced to abide by a strict dress and hairstyle code. Is school the army? (In any case) with the current ordinance, uniform, unlike hair, can be regulated by individual schools,” she said.

But others such as Jung fear that class discipline will break down without rules and adequate methods of punishment.

“The provisions regarding school dress is one of the typical provisions showing the problem of this ordinance. On the surface it is to protect the freedom of students. But the actual result of banning all school uniforms is causing discrimination based on economic status. These days there are even ‘classes’ in classrooms divided by the price of the overcoats of students. So this is violating their right of equality. And it is contradictory to the provisions regarding discrimination,” said Jung.

“The more serious problem is that the ordinance is saying ‘Students are free from all violence,’ and this sounds good. But the reality is that students are more suffering from violence because the ordinance is tying the hands of teachers who want to help students in school violence situations by forbidding all kind of physical intervention and immediate discipline ― even non-physical guidance also.”

The battle for the future of the capital’s education shows few signs of abating. But for now the fate of the ordinance lies with the Supreme Court, which could make a ruling before the end of the month.

“I don’t think the case will be successful because the ordinance does not go against any law,” said Chang. “The ordinance was proposed by the Seoul citizens and passed by the Seoul government, and the Education Ministry going against it is damaging to the local government.”

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