Thousands of South Korean schoolteachers 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 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 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."