Graduates' rites of passage take a sinister turn

18th February 2011 at 00:00
South Korea Parents and officials bemused as teens strip off for human pyramids and are forcibly dunked or pelted with eggs

As rites of passage go, school graduation ceremonies lack the blood and torment factor that must have marked our ancestors' crossing into adulthood.

So you might forgive South Korean children - whose official scholastic passing-out ceremonies pile on the agony with long, dreary speeches instead - for revisiting parts of our darker inheritance.

Following the end of middle school and high school in mid-February, young Koreans like nothing better than a little uniform shredding, violent peltings of flour and eggs and, in one case, building naked human pyramids for pictures to be distributed on the web.

These and other events have become something of a school tradition, according to local media. But the parading of denuded, tarred-and-feathered middle-school students on the internet, in what appears to be a type of initiation ceremony conducted by alumni from the previous year, has spurned Seoul into action.

"Some of the graduation ceremonies are not just a single incident but a problematic culture," says South Korea's president Lee Myung-bak.

So outlandish is some of this "hazing", according to the government, it has decided to bring the police in for graduation days in February to patrol the areas around schools in the hope of ensuring a more pedestrian passage into adulthood for its young students.

The police could find themselves exceedingly overstretched if they have to deal with some of the antics witnessed last year at South Korea's 11,000 elementary, middle and high schools.

These included forcing younger students to strip in the cold and rain outside school gates and the dunking of female middle-school students in the seas off Jeju Island. Even Tom Brown's arch-nemesis Flashman failed to show such enterprise when it came to bullying.

The authorities have warned that they will use force if the students do not comply with the law, but others are demanding a more conciliatory approach. After all, South Korean children are already some of the most miserable in the world.

The country's appetite for qualifications means juniors dedicate most of their waking hours to study and preparation for tests from the age of three.

The competitive education system has created such stresses in young students that hazing is often their only outlet, say the experts.

"This situation has occurred in reaction to repressive school cultures ... We will create a new culture of graduation ceremonies planned by students," says an optimistic Oh Seung-geol, head of school life and culture in the education ministry.

Others suggest that more recreational sport will help youngsters to blow off steam. But this is unlikely to wash with the nation's pushy parents. Time spent running around a sports field is seen as "wasted" by many.

As sacrificial victims on the altar of exams, is it any wonder that some South Koreans have developed distasteful rituals of their own?

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