South Korea teachers seek protection from harassment by students' parents
SEOUL, South Korea – Last year, elementary school teacher Seo Wonbin heard from the police that one of his students' parents reported him for child abuse.
The parents listed five incidents as the basis of their claim. One of them was that Seo didn't help their daughter connect to the school Wi-Fi.
Seo, who denies the incidents ever happened, was soon acquitted. But the experience left him fearful of coming to his own classroom. He says he has since been taking anti-anxiety medication.
"When the parents threatened me during an in-person meeting, I felt my expertise as a teacher was violated and personally, my self-esteem took a hit," Seo says.
He is one of many South Korean teachers who say they have suffered from parents' harassment and excessive demands. This summer, they came out to the streets voicing anger and demanding protection for their rights. They did so following the suicide of a young elementary school teacher in Seoul who had struggled with disruptive students and complaints from parents.
To teachers who gathered from across the country to mourn, the dead teacher's story sounded familiar. When teachers' groups started collecting alleged incidents of abuse by students' parents, responses claiming excessive demands, threats and verbal abuse poured in. Those claims included parents demanding a teacher pick up their injured child every morning, parents calling a teacher's personal phone late at night or while drunk, parents demanding that a teacher not get married or pregnant while in charge of their child's class, and so on.
Teachers started holding rallies every Saturday. The crowd of protesting teachers grew from 5,000 in the first rally on July 22 to 300,000 on Sept. 2, according to organizers' estimates. On Sept. 4, tens of thousands of teachers staged a walk-out despite the government's warning of punishment. South Korean law prohibits teachers' strikes.
And as the unprecedented actions by teachers took place through the beginning of the fall semester, at least three more teachers took their lives following similar struggles.
Charges of a lack of an institutional response to aid teachers
Hwang Bom-yi of the Gyeonggi Teachers' Union says the burden of dealing with parent complaints falls solely on teachers.
"There is no institutionalized response system or obligation for school leadership's involvement," Hwang says.
She says an increasing number of such complaints end with parents filing a criminal complaint against teachers for emotional or physical child abuse.
More than 1,200 legal accusations of child abuse were filed against teachers in the past five years, according to data Hwang's organization compiled from regional Offices of Education.
The law punishing child abuse was enacted in 2014 in the wake of a series of fatal domestic child abuse cases. It allows anyone to report any adult for the crime based on suspicion alone.
Although the law was originally intended to protect children at their homes, Hwang says, it is too easy for disgruntled parents to abuse the law to harass teachers over instructions or disciplines they find unpleasant. And teachers cannot hold them legally accountable for false accusations.
In a survey conducted by the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union (KTU) in 2022, 93% of teachers said they fear they may be accused of child abuse. Among teachers who were actually charged, only 1.5% said they were eventually convicted.
A different surveyby the KTU from August shows that 63.2% of teachers have symptoms of depression. Another 16% said they have considered suicide.
Worries that teachers may become more passive, disillusioned
Choi Hyungwook, father of two school-age children and President of the civic group Parents' Association for Happy Education, says it's difficult for teachers to openly discuss their hardships due to the lack of legal protection and administrative support.
Choi, who supports teachers' cause, say the indiscriminate accusations of child abuse violate teachers' rights and in turn, students' rights, as well.
"There's a popular saying among teachers these days – if you don't do anything, then nothing will happen to you," he says.
Gyeonggi Union's Hwang says teachers can't help but become more passive in their everyday job because of the fear that any routine activity – stopping a fight between students and teaching them to apologize, for example – can lead to child abuse accusation.
Teacher Seo Wonbin says the current school environment disillusioned him about his profession. "I liked having this sense of a mission that I'm growing trees for the future by teaching young students," he says.
"But it can't always be spring or autumn for trees," Seo says, adding students need to learn to overcome difficulties. "But these days, they are not allowed the opportunity. The difficulties are considered child abuse. It feels like watching potted plants in a greenhouse."
Seo is now preparing for a different career.
A shift in parental culture and attitudes
Psychiatrist Kim Hyun Soo of Myongji Hospital just outside Seoul says that South Korean parents currently raising young children came of age when the country was becoming highly competitive and losing a sense of community.
"A new, powerful culture of wanting my child to outshine others" and a strong consumerist attitude emerged after the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s and the global financial crisis of the late 2000s, Kim says.
The parents, he adds, see it as their responsibility or a manifestation of their own competence that their children do well in school and get a good job.
And most parents have only one or two children. Kim says this makes them more zealous and obsessive about their children.
Still, Kim stresses that the educational system is primarily responsible for the current crisis.
He is the principal of an alternative school in Seoul, and his school has never experienced abusive complaints. "In the beginning of each semester, we take time to discuss what parents can demand of the school and what teachers are able to do," he says.
And this is possible because there are just seven or eight students per class, he adds.
The average number of students in South Korean classrooms slightly exceeds the average among advanced economies despite the country's birth rate of 0.78. One in five classrooms have more than 28 students.
Following teachers' suicides and protests, the government, parliament and local education authorities announced measures to strengthen teachers' rights in classrooms, improve their work environment and better protect them against harassment.
While welcoming the move, teachers' groups are calling for more resources and clearer guidelines in implementing the new policies and for an amendment to the child abuse law.
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