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South Korea teachers seek protection from harassment by students' parents

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

South Korea recently revised its laws to protect schoolteachers' rights. Teachers have recently staged large street protests after several of their colleagues died by suicide. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul that many teachers want protection from harassment by students' parents.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Korean).

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: In September and August, hundreds of thousands of teachers took to the streets, demanding a safer working environment and an official investigation into the teachers' suicides. Among the protesters was elementary schoolteacher Seo Wonbin. Last year he told one of his students' parents that their child was misbehaving in class and had been involved in violence. Seo says the parents reported him to police, claiming he had abused their child by, for example, not helping her connect to the school's Wi-Fi.

SEO WONBIN: (Through interpreter) These were all lies, and many students could clearly attest to that. So I was acquitted very quickly.

KUHN: Seo says neither his school nor education authorities came to his aid. Since then, he says he's had to take medication to cope with panic attacks. He's also thinking about switching professions.

SEO: (Through interpreter) I felt my expertise as a teacher was violated. My self-esteem took a hit, and I felt deeply depressed.

KUHN: Hwang Bom-yi, who works at a teachers union outside Seoul, says that there have been more than 1,200 cases of South Korean teachers being accused of abusing their students in the past five years. She says that South Korean laws that are supposed to protect kids from abuse at home are being incorrectly applied at schools.

HWANG BOM-YI: (Through interpreter) The system allows parents or students to claim emotional child abuse against teachers when they find the teacher's instruction or discipline unpleasant.

KUHN: Psychiatrist and school principal Kim Hyun-soo says that many Korean parents see it as their responsibility to help their kids succeed in grueling competition for good schools, jobs and marriages. All too often, he adds, parents see their kids as extensions of themselves.

HWANG: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "There are many households in Asia where the couple do not love each other," he says, "but still live together because of the children. In a sense, these children are objectified." Faced with possible harassment, teachers say they've become fearful of disciplining their students. Choi Hyung-wook is president of the Parents' Association for Happy Education, which supports the teachers' demands.

CHOI HYUNG-WOOK: (Through interpreter) There's a popular saying among teachers these days that if you don't do anything, then nothing will happen to you. This reflects the shrinking of teachers' rights and students' rights to learn.

KUHN: Hwang Bom-yi, the teachers union worker, says teachers could have been punished for taking to the streets, so it was a courageous move.

HWANG: (Through interpreter) Teachers don't have basic political rights. They can't engage in collective action, and their strikes are considered illegal.

KUHN: Following the protests, South Korea's parliament passed legal revisions this month. They affirmed teachers' rights to teach and discipline students without interference and require schools to provide counseling and support to teachers who face harassment. Parents' association president Choi says the measures are late but welcome. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

SHAPIRO: If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, dial or text the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PUTH SONG, "LOSER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.