By Kelsey Durham
Queens lawmakers and members of the Korean-American community responded with shock and sadness this week after Queens District Attorney Richard Brown announced that two women at a private tutoring center in Little Neck were recently accused of abusing four young exchange students.
The DA said Sun Kyung Park, 33, of Oakland Gardens, and Min Kyung Chea, of Little Neck, were arrested last week after an NYPD investigation revealed that the two women had allegedly abused four South Korean students sent to New York by their families for an education at Crown Tutoring Academy on Northern Boulevard, owned by Chea’s husband, between January and July 2014.
The women are accused of withholding food and bathroom privileges from the students, who range from 9 to 11 years old, as well as forcing them to perform tasks such as holding books above their heads for long periods of time, the DA said.
Park is also charged with repeatedly striking a student with a spiral notebook, causing scratches to his shoulder and back, according to the DA.
Park is facing charges of second-degree assault and endangering the welfare of a child and faces up to seven years in prison if convicted, the DA said. Chea has been charged with third-degree attempted assault and endangering the welfare of a child and could spend up to a year in jail, according to the DA’s office.
Former City Councilman Allan Jennings, representing Crown Academy as a spokesman, called the allegations “utterly and completely false” and said the dispute was actually a financial matter brought about by a vindictive former employee who was previously hired by the academy to host the students while they studied in New York.
“There is no victim here,” he said. “These are serious allegations, but they are not true.”
Jennings said Park and Chea both pleaded not guilty at an Aug. 7 arraignment and were released on bail: $5,000 for Park and $1,000 for Chea.
Dennis Ring, the attorney representing the two women, said they were due back in court in late September, but he said he expects his clients to be exonerated before the court date arrives.
Jennings said a woman, whom he declined to identify, was contracted by the home-stay company Crown Parent Services to take in exchange students for a salary of $2,500 per month but asked for a $50,000 advance on her wages due to financial difficulties.
He said Park and Chea — already having fronted her $10,000 on a previous request — declined to give her another advance, causing the woman to resign and fabricate abuse allegations against the owners of Crown Academy while trying to put their home-stay business out of service, Jennings said.
The DA said one of the students’ nannies, whom Jennings said is the tutoring center’s former employee, reported the abuse after noticing scratches and other marks on the boy’s body toward the end of May. But Jennings said the child has a documented medical allergy that causes him to develop a rash over his back and arms, which his parents later treated him for at a hospital, he said.
Ring questioned the allegations that the two women withheld food and water from the students since no children ever lived with Park and Chea but instead were under the care of the woman who filed the complaint against the two.
“This criminal complaint filed in this case reads like a confession by this person,” Ring said of the woman who made the accusations. “This person was the legal guardian to these children and claims that she saw injuries May 21, yet didn’t report it until July 24, the same day her employment with [Crown Academy] ended.”
In response to the allegations, state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing) and state Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Flushing) jointly announced Tuesday a plan to introduce legislation next session aimed at closing what Kim called “loopholes” in existing laws and regulations that allow tutoring centers to avoid background checks or not disclose any prior criminal history.
“There are some Koreans even who think this is not abuse and this is a normal way of educating our children,” Kim said. “That’s a mindset that we need to change as a community. Beating kids up and punishing them is not effective. It’s not motivating them to get into Harvard.”
Kim said when he was growing up in South Korea, he was often punished in similar methods that Park and Chea are alleged to have used on the four students, but he said in retrospect the forms of punishment used in many Korean schools did not help him want to be a better learner.
Crown Tutoring Academy is one of several institutions around the city with a target demographic of South Koreans, who often send their children to the United States to receive a higher quality of education. Owners of businesses that surround the center, on the second floor of a small shopping center, said they rarely see or hear from anyone at the school and said students and teachers mostly keep to themselves.
Grace Yoon, executive director of the Korean American Family Service Center, said she was not familiar with Crown Academy before hearing of the alleged abuse but said her organization was “outraged” to hear the news.
“This case is complicated, but the owner and teachers of this academy were primary caregivers of these young students entrusted by parents overseas, yet they abused their power to control their students,” she said. “No child deserves such physical, verbal and emotional abuse no matter what, even at the excuse of discipline. The people responsible for this abuse must be held accountable for their action to the maximum.”
Ring said there have been no other witnesses found who observed any injuries to the four students from abuse other than by the woman who made the complaint, who he said was financially motivated to bring down his clients’ business. He also said none of the students’ parents have reported any abuse or made any allegations against Park and Chea.
“It’s very noteworthy here that there have been over 300 children who have gone through this academy and this is the first time there’s ever been any complaint of any kind made to authorities,” he said. “There are four children mentioned in this complaint and I’ve seen no allegations by any of them.”
Ring said Crown Academy is still open and functioning normally while the case is being prepared for court.
Reach reporter Kelsey Durham at 718-260-4573 or by e-mail at [email protected].