By Soo-hyang Choi, Dogyun Kim and Daewoung Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) -About 50,000 South Korean teachers rallied in Seoul on Monday to demand better protection of their rights and spotlight what they called widespread harassment by overbearing parents that has spurred some colleagues to take their lives.
After a young teacher was found dead in an apparent suicide in July, complaints by public school teachers have grown sharply over mistreatment by parents and students, such as accusations of child abuse for disciplining pupils.
"To inquire is to mourn," read some of the banners displayed at the protest, which was peaceful.
Legal measures had been inadequate and government officials passive when it came to protecting teachers against problems, said one teacher who participated in the rally, but gave only her surname, Lee, so as to protect her anonymity.
"On top of classes, there have been unnecessarily heavy workloads and excessive complaints from students and parents," she added. "They have been a comprehensive problem, which I experienced throughout my 15 years of teaching."
During the six years to June, about 100 public school teachers have committed suicide in South Korea. Fifty-seven taught at elementary schools, government data showed.
President Yoon Suk Yeol ordered officials to listen to the teachers' demands and work to protect their rights, his office said.
Scores of teachers had vowed to take a leave of absence in protest on Monday, as government and school board officials scrambled to avert major disruptions of classes and promised legal steps to boost protection.
Apart from the Seoul protest, about 60,000 to 70,000 teachers held rallies elsewhere, organisers estimated.
Authorities warned that collective action by teachers to disrupt classes was illegal and threatened disciplinary steps.
The South Korean teachers' union was not involved in Monday's demonstrations, however, said the group leading the protests, Everyone Together As One.
"We will protect them (the teachers) and make changes so that not one more teacher chooses to take their life," protest organisers said in a statement.
In July, an elementary school teacher was found dead at school after reportedly expressing anxiety over complaints by a parent regarding a dispute among students.
Among the visitors to the memorial for the teacher set up at an elementary school in Seoul was Jung Chai-jin, 67.
"They studied hard to go to education schools and became teachers because they loved children," she said. "And they have to die like this in the classroom?"
Ku Bo-na, a fifth-grader from another school who also visited the memorial, said, "Teachers are those who make me grow, so it will be sad if my teacher passes away."
Teachers have held nationwide vigils and demonstrations each weekend since to mourn the death, culminating in a rally on Saturday that drew as many as 200,000 teachers near the National Assembly in Seoul.
South Korea has the highest rate of suicide among developed countries, data from the World Health Organisation and OECD shows, with more than 20 people per 100,000 of its population taking their lives.
The education ministry has vowed to prevent incidents of teachers being punished for legitimate educational activity, and to improve communication between teachers and parents.
"The number of indiscriminate child abuse reports has been increasing, as students' rights were overly emphasised, while those of the teachers were not respected," it said in a statement.
"We will support teachers so that they can focus on education, free of concerns over getting indiscriminate complaints of child abuse."
The ministry set up a task force on Saturday to strengthen legal measures and take steps to guarantee teachers' rights, such as not taking telephone calls from parents on their personal phones, but did not give a specific timeframe.
(Reporting by Soo-hyang Choi, Dogyun Kim and Daewoung Kim; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Clarence Fernandez)