Thousands of South Korean school teachers and staff rallied in Seoul on Saturday for more legal protection from bullying by parents, a rising problem in a country known for its brutally competitive school environments.
The weekend demonstrations in the capital city were triggered by the death of a teacher who was found dead at her elementary school in July after reportedly expressing emotional distress caused by complaints from allegedly abusive parents.
The protesting teachers, who have rallied for weeks, say current laws make it difficult to exercise control over their classrooms and leave them at the mercy of overbearing parents, who could easily accuse them of emotionally abusing children.
South Korean lawmakers are currently debating bills that would meet some of the teachers’ demands for immunity from child abuse claims. But some experts have raised concerns over the potential changes, saying the proposals could further weaken protection for children, who toil for years in hypercompetitive environments.
In South Korea, graduating from elite universities is seen as crucial for career and marriage prospects.
According to Education Ministry and the National Health Insurance Service data provided to liberal opposition lawmaker Kim Woni last week, more than 820 elementary, middle- and high-school students died of suicide between 2018 and 2022.
Dressed in black, thousands of teachers and school staff occupied a street near the National Assembly, chanting slogans and holding up signs that read: “Grant teachers immunity from child emotional abuse claims.” The protesters said more than 9,000 teachers have been reported by parents for child abuse in the past eight years.
“I hope that the bills being discussed now (by lawmakers) will be passed as soon as possible to secure teachers’ rights to life and empower teachers to provide good education,” said Ahn Ji Hye, a teacher and one of the protest’s organizers.
Police reportedly estimated that around 20,000 people turned out in Saturday’s rally.
Amid the teachers’ growing anger, South Korea’s conservative government launched a task force earlier this month to explore new education-related laws that would reflect the opinions of teachers in an effort to protect them from child abuse allegations.
The education and justice ministries in their joint press release accused Seoul’s former liberal government of employing policies that “overemphasized the human rights of children,” which they said led to an increase in “unwarranted child abuse reports.
Tens of thousands of teachers across South Korea have protested in the streets since July amid worsening complaints over student misbehavior and harassment by parents.
On Saturday, a large protest was held near the National Assembly in Seoul, estimated by the local police at 100,000 people. On Monday, tens of thousands of teachers nationwide took a coordinated leave of absence and held rallies nationwide, according to organizers — an unusual tactic used to sidestep the law that makes it illegal for them to strike in South Korea.
On Monday, when teachers also mourned the suicide of a teacher who claimed to have suffered at the hands of abusive parents, some elementary schools canceled classes, according to the Education Ministry — a rare occurrence.
In a country known for its fiercely competitive schools and the weight that society places on education, students and parents are not the only parties under immense stress. Teachers say that they often face pressure from parents who make excessive or impossible demands of them, including favoritism for their children.
“Teachers aren’t able to do their jobs right now,” said Jo Chan-woo, 34, a teacher in Seoul who attended the rally on Monday. “Let us do our jobs.”
One of teachers’ central demands includes revising an ambiguous clause in the country’s Child Welfare Act meant to prohibit child abuse. Teachers say that the ambiguity allows parents to file — or threaten to file — child abuse charges against teachers who take reasonable disciplinary action against student misbehavior. Even if a teacher is falsely accused, they could be suspended from their job and left alone to defend themselves in court, teachers and education experts say.
Teachers say the fear of facing such allegations has scared them from responding to misbehaving students and empowered some parents to harass teachers. Abusive calls and texts from such parents, compounded by teachers’ growing administrative duties, have damaged the mental health of many teachers, experts say.
Teachers have demanded that the government provide clear guidelines on disciplining students. (Teachers in South Korea are government employees whose conduct and duties are defined by the country’s laws.)
“We’re asking the government to provide a specific manual for dealing with misbehaving students,” said Son Gyeong-eun, 33, a teacher in Seoul who rallied on Monday. “Reasonable discipline shouldn’t count as child abuse.”
The teachers’ movement was sparked in part by the apparent suicide of a young teacher in July at an elementary school in Seoul after she had expressed concerns to her colleagues about being harassed by parents. Her death, which police officials have said is being investigated as a suicide, shocked the public, including the legions of teachers who have since held vigils and rallies every weekend to demand better protections for educators.
The Education Ministry said it supported the changes demanded by the teachers — but warned that they and their principals could face punishment for protesting because collective action is illegal for government employees. Teachers at Monday’s rallies legally used sick leave or vacation days, said Jang Dae-jin, a spokesman for one of the country’s teachers’ unions.
The rallies of the past few months have been led by a grassroots group of teachers that is independent from the unions, which do not have the power to authorize such demonstrations, Mr. Jang said.
Representatives of parents’ associations in South Korea said they sympathized with the difficulties that teachers faced in their work environments, but argued that some of their demands were impractical and that parents were being blamed.
“It is unfortunate that much of the anger is directed at parents,” said Lee Yoon-kyoung, the president of one of the country’s national associations of parents. “They should be directed at the government or the ministry instead.”
At least three South Korean elementary schoolteachers have died by suicide in the past three years after struggling with pressure from students and their parents, protest organizers said, including two teachers who had taught at the same school in northern Seoul and who died within a six-month period in 2021.
The number of teachers who quit or retired from public schools reached a record high of more than 12,000 in the past year, a 43 percent increase from six years ago and a 12 percent jump from last year, according to Education Ministry data.
The Education Ministry implemented protections last Friday to prevent teachers from being harassed, including requiring parents to set up appointments to speak with teachers; no longer requiring teachers to respond to parents’ calls via their personal phones; and increasing the penalties for student misbehavior.
“There has been an increase in indiscriminate child abuse allegations against teachers, as the focus shifted too far toward student’s rights, while those of the teachers were not respected,” the ministry said in a statement.