The Korea Herald


Yoon calls to revise student rights ordinance to protect teachers

Seoul education chief, progressive teachers oppose revision, argue education should remain politically neutral

By Park Jun-hee

Published : July 24, 2023 - 19:11

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(Yonhap) (Yonhap)

Amid growing concerns over recent cases of teacher abuse by students and parents, the government announced Monday that it would revise a student rights ordinance to safeguard teachers’ rights and enhance their authority in classrooms.

The ordinance -- adopted in 2011 for schools in Gyeonggi Province and in 2012 in Seoul by progressive education superintendents -- is a set of legally binding guidelines that bans corporal punishment by teachers; discrimination against LGBT and pregnant students; allows rallies on school grounds; and gives students the freedom to choose their own hairstyles and clothing.

An apparent suicide by an elementary school teacher in Seoul’s Seocho-gu last week has sparked criticism of the lack of equally protective measures for teachers, alleging that they’ve been left defenseless against parents and students for years.

During a meeting on Monday, Yoon instructed officials to come up with guidelines that protect teachers’ rights and enhance their authority. He also ordered them to scrap “unreasonable education ordinances that infringe on teachers’ rights.”

Yoon’s instruction came after a 23-year-old junior teacher at a public elementary school was found dead in her classroom in apparent suicide. The case is currently under investigation, but reports and rumors have been circulating that she had been continuously bullied by parents of children involved in school violence.

The case has sparked nationwide outrage among teachers lamenting on the absence of legal measures to protect themselves from demanding parents, or from students with behavioral issues who need special help.

On Yoon’s instruction, Education Minister Lee Ju-ho said his ministry would establish guidelines by August that stipulate the scope and specific measures that could be applied to the education field to prevent further infringement on teachers’ and other students’ rights to learning during a meeting with the chairperson of the Korean Federation of Trade Unions and incumbent teachers.

Currently, students are protected under the Ordinance of Students Rights, which is in effect in schools in Seoul, Gyeonggi Province, Gwangju, North Jeolla Province, Jeju Island and South Chungcheong Province.

However, no measures are in place for teachers to safeguard their autonomy as of now. However, Lee hinted during a meeting with the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations on Friday that changes could soon be made to the ordinance, citing an increasing number of incidents involving disruptive student behavior in classrooms.

A growing number of unruly and misbehaving students deem their teachers -- regardless of age and gender -- as easy targets of sexual, verbal, cyber and other types of abuse. A total of 1,133 teachers were subject to physical assault or attacks by students and parents between 2018 and 2022, according to data released by the Education Ministry.

Lee said that the students’ rights ordinance undermined teachers’ rights, making it hard for them to wake students sleeping during class, for example. To prevent such incidents from happening, he said his ministry would work with other education offices to revise the ordinance, citing that Lim Tae-hee, Superintendent of Education of Gyeonggi-do, recently decided to take part in creating a change.

However, a group of teachers’ associations and Cho Hee-yeon, the progressive chief of Seoul’s Education office expressed concerns on Monday over amending the students’ rights ordinance, citing that students’ rights should be guaranteed.

“At a time when we are faced with redefining and strengthening teachers’ authority, we have to take a future-oriented approach, and not backpedal,” Cho said during a press conference jointly held with teacher unions. “The personal freedoms (of students) should be ensured. We have to create a community where people think of the community and are not self-centered individuals,” he added.

Cho also said that education “shouldn’t be a political issue” among both sides of the aisle, adding that “too many cooks spoil the broth” when excessive and unnecessary changes are made.

Instead, Cho and the leaders of the Seoul Metropolitan Government Federation of Teachers’ Organizations, the KFTU and the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union urged the government to amend the child abuse law to allow teachers some immunity from indiscriminate child abuse reports.

“The act is beginning to define teachers as child abuse perpetrators in a country where schools have relied on teachers’ authority in the past,” said Kim Seong-bo, head of the Seoul bureau of the KTU.

In light of the recent tragedy, the ministry is also mulling over implementing a policy that would allow teachers to record a student’s violations of teaching authority in their school disciplinary records, explaining that students will have to take responsibility for their wrongdoing.

However, Kim of the KTU said the mandate would only trigger parental complaints and abusive students to argue with teachers, explaining that schools shouldn’t create conflict between them.

Meanwhile, the Seoul Education Office said it would come up with appropriate measures for teachers, such as issuing recording devices, that could go into effect in schools in the latter half of the year.