South Korea passes law to protect rights of teachers after mass protests over abuse from parents

South Korea has passed a set of legal revisions aimed at improving the rights of teachers in schools, following weeks of protests sparked by a series of teacher suicides said to be linked to malicious complaints from parents.

The four bills, collectively known as the “teacher rights restoration bills” and passed at the national assembly on Thursday, represent a significant step towards enhancing the working conditions and protections for educators in the country.

In particular, passage of one of the bills, which had unanimous support, means teachers will no longer be automatically suspended if they are accused of child abuse. The bill also prohibits school principals from downplaying or concealing activities that may have violated a teacher’s rights.

Teacher unions have welcomed the move.

“The successful passage of these laws is thanks to the efforts of teachers who have taken to the streets every week […] We express our deep gratitude to them,” said the Korean Federation of Teachers Union.

The Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union described the passage of the four bills as a “first step toward normalising public education and guaranteeing teaching authority”, but cautioned that achieving the full effectiveness of these laws may be challenging without sufficient manpower, budget support, and additional legislation.

A controversial provision that would have allowed teachers to leave a record of students who violated teacher rights at school, potentially affecting their university admission prospects, was excluded from the final bills.

The legal amendments follow weeks of protests and a large-scale walkout by teachers expressing frustrations over the abusive treatment they say they receive from both parents and students, including being accused of child abuse for disciplining students.

The teachers’ movement was sparked by the death of a 23-year-old primary school teacher in July. She was found dead at her school in Seoul in an apparent suicide after reportedly expressing anxiety over complaints from abusive parents. Since then, other teacher suicides suspected of being related to malicious complaints have come to light.

In August, the government unveiled a set of guidelines to enhance teachers’ rights, including measures to address abusive complaints. In Seoul, a chatbot service will be introduced in schools to deal with simple parental complaints on behalf of teachers.