-OpEd-

BEIJING — Last May, eight middle school girls beat up a first-grader in China's Shandong province, and uploaded a video of the assault online. A month later, in Nanjing city, a group of high school boys in their senior year thrashed a junior, dragged him into a toilet and forced him to eat feces after he refused to give them money. His attackers also filmed the act and sent the recording to other students as well as the victim's parents.

These kinds of assaults, better known as bullying, a process where students intentionally intimidate others physically, verbally or online, have intensified to frightening levels at Chinese schools in recent years, prompting the State Council's Education Steering Committee to recently issue a notification requiring all primary and secondary schools to pay attention to bullying on their grounds.

A 2002 survey conducted by the psychology department of Shandong University found that 14.9% of all schoolchildren have been subject to some form of bullying, which, in turn, research shows, hampers a minor's mental and physical health, and could become a life-long nightmare for some individuals.

Despite the serious consequences of bullying, China lags behind other countries in dealing with this problem. The Minors Protection Act, or the Law against Domestic Violence, for instance, is limited to adult violence against minors. No law relates to insulting behavior or violence of children against other children.

Moreover, our legal threshold for penalizing acts of violence and obstruction of personal freedom is too high. Only those acts that cause physical injuries or illegally restrict the physical movement of a person for more than 24 hours can be prosecuted as crimes of intentional assault or illegal detention. As for verbal abuse or slander, only those actions that result in "serious consequences" can be considered crimes. Even the onus of proving the crime falls on the victim as is the decision on whether to take the perpetrator to court.

Ready for school in Guizhou Province, China — Photo: Thomas Galvez

Criminal law is rarely applied to offenders when it comes to bullying. Instead, those above the age of 14 and under 18 are typically subjected to lighter punishment while those aged under 14 are sent to their parents or guardians to be disciplined. The idea that minors are entitled to special protection because they are mentally immature is a legitimate one. But the victims of these crimes, who are also minors, need equal protection. This can't be one-sided.

Schools are part of the problem. When a child is bullied on school property, the head teacher is scolded and, in more severe cases, faces disciplinary action. The administration rarely reports the case to police because the school's reputation as well as the careers of staff members is at stake. In such scenarios, the administration tends to sideline parents who insist on legal action. Instead, it often chooses to stand on the side of the bully's parents in the hope of reaching a peaceful resolution. But, by choosing to do so, the administration encourages lawlessness and schools become a breeding ground for bullies.

In China, little has been done to create a safety net for bullied students. Due to a lack of experience and development, schoolchildren often lack the ability to cope with bullying. They need to be provided with accessible and trusted assistance that is available at any time. Schools need a strictly standardized response to bullying and need to be held legally responsible for what happens on their property.

Our neighboring country, Japan, was at one time plagued with school violence. In 2013, the Japanese parliament passed a slate of measures to prevent bullying. The law judges "from the victim's position" on whether or not the offender's act constitutes bullying. Teachers are graded on how they handled this problem in their performance evaluation. Schools are now required to set up an Advisory Committee and a Schoolchildren Safety Measures Support Room made up of professionals. When perpetrators are suspected of illegal acts, police are contacted immediately to assist in the investigation. In the United States, law enforcement agencies are called in at once when an assault occurs. In South Korea, a student can apply to the school or education department for personal protection, and a security guard is dispatched in response. In order to avoid isolating the student because of the protection service, these guards often go undercover.

Monitoring bullying in schools is now a global trend. But apart from moderate legal punishment, more focus should be on preventing violence and providing protection. These are broad-brush requirements. Each school has to find out their own specific support measures. Bullying in schools is a secretive and longstanding practice. In order to ensure that the Education Steering Committee's recent notification to schools is enforced, it's crucial that their requirements are crystallized in the form of legislation.

*The author is a lawyer at the Capital Equity Legal Group, a law firm