Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The politicization of sexual harassment cases at Gyeonggi-do English Villages (2006)

In the mid-2000s a number of English villages were opened in Korea to provide an immersion experience in which students could practice speaking English, with the first being opened in 2004 in Ansan, Gyeonggi-do. As this (and this) article notes, Seongnam English Town was opened in December 2005 in the Saemaeul Movement Central Training Center in Bundang and run by Edu Chosun (a subsidiary of the Chosun Ilbo). 6-day camps were attended by 250 local Grade 6 students at a time. It cost 350,000 won, of which 110,000 won was paid by participants and 240,000 won was subsidized by Seongnam City. Upon entering the village, students underwent a level test and were divided into 20 classes, and then spent 6 days with 24 native speaking teachers, 12 Korean teachers, and 4 safety teachers. (More on the Paju English Village can be read here in English.)

On May 24, 2006, the Segye Ilbo reported that "An allegation has been raised that a native-speaking teacher at Seongnam English Town sexually harassed students during class" and that "civic groups are demanding a fact-finding investigation and countermeasures".

The "Seongnam English Town Sexual Abuse Countermeasures Committee," composed of six Seongnam women’s groups and educational associations, claimed that day that some sixth grade girls from a Seongnam elementary school who were accepted into the Town complained to their parents that a Korean-American English teacher had made excessive physical contact with them. 

The girls claimed that during an outdoor hiking activity, the teacher pulled the strings of the girls’ underwear, put his hand inside their clothes, stroked a certain part of their bodies, and stared excessively at their chests.

As a result, parent representatives and the school’s principal visited the English Town on May 5 to inform them of what had happened and demand the dismissal of the teacher.

The English Town authorities explained that the parents informed them that nine students had complained of inappropriate physical contact from one of their teachers. Though the facts were not clear and they stated that the teacher had only good intentions, the personnel committee there made a decision to dismiss the teacher, which the teacher did not accept, so he ended up voluntarily resigning on May 19.

In response, the countermeasure committee declared the English Town's measures to be insufficient and argued that it was not fulfilling promises to post an apology on the its website."

Later on May 24, in an article titled "Controversy over sexual harassment of elementary school students in Seongnam English Town"(and written by the secretary general of the Seongnam Secondary School Branch of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers' Union), Ohmynews provided more information about the case, particularly from a letter sent to the girls' elementary school on May 8.

It noted that the students had attended the camp from May 1 to May 6, and on the 4th had complained to parents who were visiting that a Korean-American English teacher had pulled their bra straps, touched their necks, heads and shoulders (while telling them he was knocking off bugs) and stared at certain parts of their bodies during a hiking activity.

The next day, three parent representatives from their Elementary School, the vice principal, principal, and their homeroom teacher visited the English Town in person to discover the details of what happened through interviews with the students and the teacher in question. They also asked the Town director to organize a personnel committee and propose a disciplinary (dismissal) plan for the teacher, to post an apology on their homepage, to report the incident to Seongnam City Hall and the Office of Education, and to strengthen sexual harassment prevention education for all teachers and management.

An official from Seongnam English Town spoke to OhMyNews on May 24:
"The instructor has resigned now, but he vehemently denies the fact of sexual harassment. In addition, our own investigation found that a female native-speaking teacher who was with the teacher in question testified that no sexual harassment took place." "However, even if it was done with good intentions, it is true that the students felt displeased, so the [hiking] program was done away with. In the future, we plan to come up with measures to prevent recurrence through sexual harassment prevention education for teachers." The official added, "Whether or not to make a public apology is a matter that requires permission from the head office, and the head office's position is that it is difficult to make a public apology in a situation where the statements of the relevant parties are in disagreement."
The Countermeasures Committee was reportedly requesting a meeting with the mayor of Seongnam on May 25, where they would suggest a further joint investigation to confirm what happened, a severe reprimand for those responsible, a public apology and the posting of the apology, the disclosure of qualifications and backgrounds of English Town teachers, the provision of professional counselors at the school the girls attend, an improvement in the quality of English Town teachers and the ensuring of transparency in their recruitment, and the strengthening of sexual harassment prevention education.

In a Daves ESL Cafe post days later [no longer available] the foreign coordinators of Seongnam English Town wrote the following:
We are the foreign coordinators of Seongnam English Town and felt we should write and post our statement about the allegations of sexual harassment. [The Segye Ilbo article] was incorrect in two aspects – firstly, the teacher allegedly touched their bra strings through their clothes, as well as their shoulders, neck, upper back. The teacher alleges he was brushing off bugs, the students allege it was sexually motivated.

Secondly, the teacher involved, from the beginning, has vehemently denied the accusations. He never admitted responsibility as the article originally claimed. He has since resigned but maintains his version of the story.
They also released a statement:
Statement on Accusations of Sexual Harassment at Seongnam English Town

The accusations made against a Korean-American English instructor at SNET have left all the instructors here feeling uneasy. Accusations of this nature are very serious and have been considered with due attention since the incident was first reported. The Canadian English Instructor who was facilitating the hiking class alongside the accused Instructor was consulted for her input and has maintained since the beginning that she had all the students in sight throughout the hike, and that she did not witness any inappropriate behaviour or language directed towards the students.

Accusations of this nature are extremely difficult to substantiate, and the Instructor in question has maintained his innocence since the beginning. The students have also asserted the truth of their account. It is almost impossible to prove exactly what happened that day, and we have only the word of each party to judge by. The complete truth will likely never be known. That said, due to the discomfort of parents, teachers, students and the community, the Instructor was removed from the situation and has subsequently resigned from SNET.

Without denying that the students had an upsetting experience, I think it is also important to recognize that there can be different intentions behind actions that result in a person feeling discomfort. Different people have very different comfort levels about their personal space and contact with their bodies. It could be the case that the Instructor did not intend to make the students feel uncomfortable, and was viewing them simply as children who needed some encouragement to join in the hike, but some action or words may have had a different effect on the students in question. Our obligation is to investigate this incident to ensure that the rights of all parties are respected. We have also talked with the staff about the nature of sexual harassment and are putting policy into place to ensure that an incident like this never happens again.

May 23rd, 2006
Seongnam English Town Coordinators
The English Town also released a statement (actually, one statement and an apology - neither of which is now available) clarifying what took place. It pointed out that contrary to initial press reports, the instructor was not one of the camp’s native speakers. Although an American citizen, he was a native Korean speaker, and as such was listed as one of the camp’s Korean instructors. The English Town also noted that the day before the story hit the media, the camp got a call from the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers Union asking about the incident. They will come up again momentarily.

As this was happening, 196 students from a middle school in Gyeonggi-do were undertaking a similar, 6-day course at the Ansan English Village from May 22 to May 27, with six students staying in each dorm room. The dormitory was patrolled until 1 am by four employees to confirm students were asleep.

As NoCut News reported on May 27, the night before, a 28-year-old Korean employee teaching at the camp came into the dormitory after a night of drinking around 2 am and opened unlocked door(s), woke up six (or seven, by some reports) sleeping female students, and touched their upper bodies. (As the English Village explained it, the teachers' lodging was temporarily in the same building as the student dormitory). The teacher was relieved of his duties, and on May 27 Ansan police filed for an arrest warrant for the teacher. The article stated that "the Korean instructor in question is a graduate student majoring in English education at a graduate school of education in Seoul" and that the incident was "shocking because he is known as a diligent instructor." 

In order to prevent a recurrence in the future, the Village authorities planned to control all personnel other than on-call instructors in the camp after work, ban Korean and foreign instructors and administrative staff from drinking in the camp, and control entry for those who went drinking outside. As well, they decided to conduct regular training at least once a month to enhance the quality of instructors, to strengthen the night watch system and locks, and to expand 24-hour CCTV monitoring and patrols.

Six women and education organizations, including the 'Seongnam Women's Hotline', formed the 'English Village Sexual Harassment Countermeasure Committee' and viewed the sexual harassment incidents in Seongnam and Ansan as a structural problem and requested the authorities to prepare countermeasures. In most English villages, nighttime management for students is not performed well, and many teachers with untested qualifications are hired, which is likely to cause problems.
The fact that the accused in the Seongnam case was not a native-speaking teacher, and that the accused in the Ansan case was Korean, was overlooked (either accidentally or deliberately) on a number of occasions. For example, on June 6, Media Today ran a piece criticizing the Chosun Ilbo and Joongang Ilbo for their silence about the harassment cases the Gyeonggi-do English camps, alleging that their silence was due to business interests the two papers have in the English camp business. While taking Korea’s conservative dailies to task for failing in their journalistic responsibilities, however, Media Today decided to print as-is (quoting the press release of a Seongnam civic group coalition) the original allegation that the Seongnam Camp assault was carried out by a "native speaker" (which it wasn't) while also failing to note the Korean nationality of the English teacher accused in the Ansan case. (To be fair, they removed "native speaker" from an updated article the next day.)

If Media Today's article made clear how some were politicizing the case, the Korean Teachers Union went even further, taking the English Village Sexual Harassment Countermeasure Committee's concept of the cases being due to structural problems in a more extreme direction. On May 30, Newsis published the following:
KTU: "Sexual harassment in English Village is a structural problem, we must strengthen public education"

Regarding the recent successive cases of sexual harassment of students by English village teachers, the Gyeonggi branch of the National Teachers and Educational Workers' Union (KTU) said on the May 30, "Sexual harassment at English villages is structural problem deriving from unverified native speaking instructors," and insisted on strengthening public English education.

The KTU's Gyeonggi branch said in a statement that day, "Regarding the sexual harassment in Seongnam and Ansan English Village, Gyeonggi Province Governor Sohn Hak-gyu announced that he would prepare measures to improve the overall English Village operating system to prevent recurrence." “However, because it is a structural problem deriving from unverified native speaking instructors, there is a potential for it to happen at any time.”

The Gyeonggi branch of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union (KTU) stated the bases of this opinion as follows: ▲Anyone with a bachelor’s degree can become a native speaking instructor regardless of whether or not they have a teacher’s license ▲ Native speaking instructors’ unrestrained sexual consciousness and mode of expression ▲Native speaker instructors' lack of a sense of responsibility, since few feel they are answering a calling, but rather have as their goal to stay for a short time to experience Korean culture and build up their resumes.

An official from the Gyeonggi branch of the KTU said, "Educational effects cannot be achieved in a classroom with 40 native speakers per class." "If we set up English experience rooms at each school and increase the number of English teachers to reduce the number of students per class in English classes, the effect of English education in public education will increase." 

However, in a follow up article, the Gyeonggi English Village refuted the KTU's claim, saying, "It is one-sidedly denouncing the qualifications of foreign instructors at the English camp."
In response, an official from Gyeonggi English Village said, "We feel entirely responsible for the drunk and inappropriate behavior of a Korean instructor at Ansan Camp," but added, "However, the claim of hiring unverified native English instructors, and the claim about their  [lack of] educational sense is a distortion of the facts, as the qualities of foreign instructors at Gyeonggi English Village are recognized through a thorough preliminary verification process.” 

Meanwhile, Gyeonggi Province Governor Sohn Hak-kyu visited Anseong A Middle School, which the sexually harassed students attend, apologized, and conducted on-site inspections of Ansan Camp and Paju Camp.
The Gyeonggi branch of the KTU blatantly ignored the fact that both the Seongnam and Ansan sexual harassment incidents were allegedly committed by non-native speakers in order to promote xenophobia. The KTU's only foreign member, Jason Thomas, responded as follows:
First, I'll attempt to explain what I think Gyeonggi KTU was doing with the release.

The English Villages in Gyeonggi were founded by Governor Sohn, who is an important member of the conservative Hanarra Party. Public education is not a big priority for Sohn or Hanarra, and the KTU used the publicity surrounding the incidents to score some easy political points against Sohn, and to promote public education. Worthwhile goals, in my opinion.

But this is NOT an apology.

Gyeonggi KTU is cynically exploiting the currents of xenophobia that exist in Korea, to its own ends. The release deliberately targeted ill-informed and biased newsreaders, and I was shocked that teaching professionals would do this. The statement attacks EVERY FOREIGN TEACHER IN KOREA.

Unfortunately, despite appeals from various union members and foreign teachers, the Gyeonggi office has refused to retract their statement.

As SOMEONE must accept responsibility for this inane and hateful piece of propaganda, I will resign from the KTU.
(Thomas went on to become a founding member of ATEK.)

The memory of these cases, and, in part, the false memory of them being committed by a "native speaker" would linger for some time. They also reveal that Anti-English Spectrum was not the only group willing to use distortions of the truth to fuel xenophobia in order to achieve political goals.

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