By Soo-hyang Choi
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean teachers are set to rally on Monday and sit out of work to demand better protection of their rights and to protest what they say is widespread harassment by overbearing parents that has led colleagues to take their own lives.
Complaints by public school teachers over mistreatment by parents and students, including being accused of child abuse for disciplining pupils, have grown sharply after a young teacher was found dead in July in an apparent suicide.
Scores of teachers have vowed to take a leave of absence in protest on Monday. Government and school board officials have scrambled to stave off major disruptions of classes and promised legal steps to better protect educators.
The number of teachers who stayed away from class was not immediately clear, but local media said dozens of schools across the country were expected to close because teachers said they would not work.
Authorities said collective action by teachers to disrupt classes was illegal and warned of disciplinary measures. The South Korean teachers union is not involved in organising the demonstrations on Monday, 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," organisers said in a statement.
President Yoon Suk Yeol on Monday ordered officials to listen to the teachers' demands and work to protect their rights, his office said.
In July, an elementary school teacher was found dead at school after reportedly expressing anxiety over complaints from a parent over a dispute among students.
Teachers across the country have since been holding vigils and demonstrations every weekend to mourn her death, leading up to a rally on Saturday where as many as 200,000 teachers gathered near the National Assembly in Seoul.
Another 20,000 were expected to take to the streets on Monday to join a demonstration near the parliament, organisers said.
One hundred public school teachers committed suicide in South Korea during the past six years as of June. Fifty-seven taught at elementary schools, government data showed.
South Korea has the highest rate of suicide among developed countries, according to World Health Organisation and OECD data, with more than 20 people per 100,000 population taking their lives.
The education ministry has vowed to prevent incidents of teachers' being punished for legitimate educational activity, and improve communication between teachers and parents.
Under the government plan, teachers will be guaranteed the right to avoid calls from parents on their personal phones, among other measures.
"The number of indiscriminate child abuse reports has been increasing, as students rights were overly emphasised while those of the teachers weren't respected," the ministry said in a release. "We will support teachers so that they can focus on education, free of concerns over getting indiscriminate complaints of child abuse."
(Reporting by Soo-hyang Choi. Editing by Gerry Doyle)