July 31, 2023
SEOUL – Over 30,000 teachers and supporters rallied in downtown Seoul on Saturday, calling for the revision of South Korea’s child abuse law, which they argue allows parents to unjustly accuse teachers of misconduct without a thorough investigation.
The protesters say the Act on Special Cases Concerning the Punishment of Child Abuse Crimes permits parents to accuse teachers of child abuse and report them to law enforcement without thoroughly investigating the situation or providing opportunities for the teachers to defend themselves.
It was the second weekly gathering of teachers and aspiring teachers, as the organizers seek to hold rallies regularly until early September, which will be 49 days after the death of a 23-year-old teacher who apparently took her own life in an elementary school classroom in Seocho-gu, Seoul, earlier this month. The previous week’s rally saw some 5,000 participants.
Saturday’s rally indicated that parental abuses of reporting child abuse cases against teachers has been obstructing teachers’ responsibility to effectively manage the classroom and discipline students appropriately.
Once a teacher is accused of abusing a student in his or her classroom, the teacher is suspended and replaced with a substitute, and the accused teacher cannot return until cleared of the abuse allegation.
“Consequently, the classroom (ecosystem) is imploding,” an unnamed teacher said before the protesters.
“We are seeing the children’s right to be protected being respected at all times, while teachers’ responsibility to teach children how to behave appropriately is being dwarfed by the law to prevent child abuse. This needs to improve.”
Over the past several decades, South Korea has worked to foster a classroom environment that respects human rights by eliminating corporal punishment, while also relaxing rules on school uniforms, hairstyles and even underwear color. However, attempts to create an inclusive environment involving both students and teachers have often been met with strong reactions from the parents of troubled students, teachers say.
Another anonymous teacher, with a career spanning over two decades, spoke on Saturday about an experience she had when she was accused of child abuse by a parent. The accusation followed an incident where she was responding to a student who was physically assaulting peers.
To take control of the situation, the teacher overturned a table to capture the students’ attention. She later destroyed what was intended to be a student’s apology letter as it lacked any signs of remorse, and the student told the teacher to disregard the matter.
The teacher was acquitted of the abuse allegation in early July following a year of litigation.
Wearing sunglasses, the concerned teacher said that a teacher who tries to break up a fight between classmates will face allegations of physical abuse, while a teacher who yells at the same children will face allegations of emotional abuse.
“Is it normal to take our courage in both hands to teach what we are supposed to teach?” she asked.
“I feel like I’m walking on thin ice every day. … The law to prevent child abuse should not be abused to allow parents to handcuff or threaten teachers.”
Some 100 professors of Seoul National University of Education also revealed in a joint statement Saturday that any “abnormal complaints” with the authorities against school or teachers should be defined as a violation of teachers’ right to teach.
This is one of the latest developments, after the apparent suicide of an elementary school teacher in Seoul on July 19 shed light on abusive students and parents who cross the line to bully teachers, or take legal action against them, because the teacher tried to correct a student’s misbehavior.
One of the latest cases garnering public attention involves Joo Ho-min, the webtoon artist behind a number of popular works, including “Along With the Gods.” Joo and his wife were found to have taken legal action against a special education teacher for alleged abusive behavior toward their son, who has autism.
Joo reportedly secretly recorded the voice of the son’s teacher, who was trying to discipline Joo’s son for sexual and physical misbehavior directed at female classmates in September 2022, and isolate him from other classmates. The teacher was immediately suspended from the position, and Joo and his wife sued the teacher for emotional abuse. In the meantime, Joo’s son moved to another school, while his former classmates had to take classes with a substitute teacher as the case was being decided.
Over 80 people, including colleagues at the school and parents of other students than Joo’s son, submitted a petition in support of the teacher.
Roh Hwan-kyu, former chief of the National Union of Korean Medical Doctors, said in a social media post Friday that Joo’s decision to sue the teacher “would eventually have a bad effect on the future of children who need special care.”
In 2022, there were 202 cases of violations of teachers’ rights by students’ parents or guardians, according to the Education Ministry.
Among them were 75 cases of verbal abuse and defamation, 45 cases of repeated intervention in teachers’ education, 25 cases of the obstruction of duty, 24 cases of threatening behavior and 14 cases of physical violence against teachers.
The number of such instances has returned to pre-pandemic levels, as Korea saw 227 such cases in 2019.
Other government data showed that 100 teachers in Korea’s primary and secondary education combined died by suicide from 2018 through the end of the first half of this year. Fifty-seven of them were elementary school teachers, according to Education Ministry data compiled by Rep. Kim Byung-wook of the ruling People Power Party.