SEOUL, April 3 (Korea Bizwire) — School security, or the lack thereof, is the lingering topic of discussion in the aftermath of a hostage incident that took place yesterday at an elementary school located in the Seocho District of Seoul.
According to the accounts provided by the police and the school administration, the hostage-taker, identified only as being 25 years old and having the surname Yang, walked in through the main gates of the school around 11:30 in the morning.
To the school’s security guard, Yang said he was a former student of the school and had come to request documentation stating his graduation. In a breach of protocol, the security guard permitted Yang to continue onwards without asking to see his identification and issuing a day-pass.
Within minutes, Yang had entered the school building and arrived at the teacher’s staff room, walking past the administration office where documents are requested and issued. Yang then grabbed a 10-year old female student and pulled out a knife he had been carrying.
The school’s public address system issued a warning to students to stay inside their classrooms, and police soon arrived on the scene. The situation was resolved around 12:43 p.m., when police negotiators charged Yang and physically restrained him.
The student taken hostage was moved to a hospital and released two hours later, with no injuries suffered. Yang was also taken to a hospital after showing signs of undergoing an epileptic fit when corralled by the police.
Though at this juncture, it appears the intrusion ended without serious physical harm suffered by all parties involved, that Yang was able to saunter into the elementary school without restraint has left parents deeply unsettled.
Their worries are not unfounded, as memories of a kidnapping and rape case involving a first-grade girl dubbed the “Kim Soo-chul incident” still remain seared into the public conscience. Eight years ago, 53-year-old Kim Soo-chul strolled into an elementary school in Yeongdeungpo District in Seoul and paced back and forth across the schoolyard before approaching his victim.
Two years later, an 18-year-old man suffering from depression walked into a classroom at a Seocho District elementary school (a different elementary school than the one yesterday) and swung wildly with a military-use folding shovel, causing varying levels of injury to six students. Despite two civilians and one security guard stationed at the school, all three failed to prevent the assault from happening. In this case too, the individual walked in through the main gates unimpeded.
Experts have pointed to a casual mindset regarding security as the reason why schools can become “security blindspots”. Lee Woong-hyuk from the department of police studies at Konkuk University said, “The first step in school security is controlling entry, but in reality schools in our country are thought of as public spaces like a neighborhood park that is open to all.”
Following the incidents involving elementary school students, starting in late 2012 schools were required to keep all main school grounds entrances closed excepting morning and afternoon times when children were coming to or going from school, and for security to issue passes to visitors.
However, as evidenced by yesterday’s school hostage incident, instituting restrictive measures on entry has not been a fail-proof solution.
While the security guard at the Seocho District school has been on the receiving end of much criticism for not abiding by protocol, fellow security guards employed at other schools say the system itself needs to be revamped.
One such individual said, “In [yesterday's incident], the security guard was at fault, but there is without a doubt a problem with the system. For example, at schools with low walls, an adult could climb over if he set his mind to it. If something were to happen in that type of situation, are you going to just blame the security guard no matter what?”
Even when the security guard in place does his or her job, there is a question of whether forceful intruders can be effectively turned away. In the city of Gwangju in 2016, an inebriated 50-something individual pushed his way past the security guard at a middle school and barged into the teacher’s staff room after berating female students on their way to the school.
With the average age of security guards being 65 (1,187 guards at 562 state-funded elementary schools in Seoul), whether these individuals are truly up to the job has also been questioned.