Sexual abuse spurs calls for reform in Chinese schools

Sexual abuse spurs calls for reform in Chinese schools

CHINA - Experts are calling for more transparency in school management and more legal protection for students in the wake of highly publicized allegations of sexual assaults at a renowned sports school.

The Hunan Provincial Gymnastics Sports School, once a cradle of Olympic champions, saw its reputation badly tarnished when its then-president, Liu Zhiqiang, and then-vice-president, Zeng Rong, were detained in November on allegations that they sexually assaulted female students. The case is under investigation, an officer with the Changsha Public Security Bureau said on Wednesday.

The scandal has exposed weaknesses in the opaque management of China's many sports schools. Experts say such schools created the foundation of China's State-run sports cultivation system with their boarding programs that separate students from their parents at a young age.

"The operation and management of sports schools in China is pretty closed, without the supervision or public review that regular schools have, and this creates the possibility for illegal acts like sexual abuse," said Wang Li, a professor of sports management at Beijing Sport University.

The Oriental Morning Post reported on Wednesday that at least six female students were sexually assaulted by Liu and Zeng in the president's office in 2013 during class breaks, quoting a school employee named Liu Weimin.

Wang said the strict obedience demanded of sports school students made them even more vulnerable to inappropriate physical contact.

Affiliated with local sports bureaus or provincial teams, most sports schools in China are operating outside local educational authorities' supervision. The schools have centralized decision-making leadership under head coaches and top officials who sometimes act as on-campus guardians for students, Wang said.

Zhang Qing, founder of sports consulting company Key Sports, echoed Wang's concerns, urging local educational and sports authorities to oversee sports schools with joint efforts.

In addition, the lack of education in sports schools, where students undergo rigorous training for long hours with few academics and social education, is another reason students don't know how to protect themselves, Zhang said.

"We should push reform for a combination of sports training and education and develop sports stars in normal schools, where they could receive a well-rounded education," Zhang said.

However, sex education has been missing even in many regular schools.

According to a recent survey conducted by the China Social Assistance Foundation in 2013, which interviewed 235 boys and 219 girls in primary schools, about 61 per cent of children know nothing about sex education, while about 24 per cent said they would not know what to do if someone tried to touch them inappropriately.

Both Zhang and Wang suggested that the government should require sports schools to strengthen sex education and supervise coaches and officials more closely.

Yi Shenghua, a lawyer at Beijing Yingke Law Firm, said the country should refine its law documents to specifically identify all types of sexual assault in all possible places and to improve the evidence-collecting procedures.

Feng Zhiwei in Changsha contributed to this story.

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