Korean school teachers angered by mandatory drug testing

Aug 10, 2021

Following a revision to the Primary and Secondary Education Act which was passed at the Korean National Assembly in December 2020, 20,000 teachers at Korean public schools are expected to undergo the tetrabromophenolphthalein ethyl ester (TBPE) drug test. The TBPE drug test is used to evaluate the past use of stimulant drugs.

The amended law was created due an increase in the number of drug-related offences in recent years with the goal of strengthening the monitoring of public school teachers.
Accordingly, the education ministry has introduced drug screening as a new requirement for individuals who seek to obtain their teacher certification.

Currently, individuals who have graduated with a university education receive Grade 2 certification, thereby becoming eligible to take the national teacher qualification examination held every year.

Teachers with more than three years of teaching experience at schools can obtain their Grade 1 certification after undergoing 200 hours of in-service training, which allows more opportunities for promotions and wage increases.

Under the new law, drug testing is mandatory for both applicants for Grade 1 and 2 certifications. However, teachers who have already obtained Grade 1 are not subject to the testing.

The new regulations have prompted backlash from Korean teachers, who denounce this “unilateral decision” and argue that it results in “treating public educators as potential drug addicts.” Many teachers are also demanding that education authorities revise its “top-down bureaucratic policy.”

“Medical workers whose jobs are directly involved with drugs such as doctors, nurses and veterinarians are subject to only one drug test when they apply for their license. But making teachers undergo the test twice is an unfair measure, creating a misperception that they are more likely to be drug abusers than other occupational groups,” said Park Keun-byeong, head of the Seoul Teachers’ Association.

“I agree that teachers are held to a higher standard of ethical behavior than other professions, but what annoyed me was the lack of communication from the education authorities,” said an anonymous teacher at a Seoul elementary school during her interview with Korea Times.

“Drug testing may reveal the types of medications a person is taking, information that some wish to keep private. Such sensitive issues should have been discussed thoroughly before implementation,” she added.

Moreover, the Gyeonggi Teachers’ Union with around 100,000 members has demanded the education authorities revise the “unreasonable” measure.

“The enforcement imposes excessively strict standards on teachers even though the ratio of illegal drug addiction among us isn’t particularly high and we do not have any special access to drugs compared to other occupational groups,” said its June statement.

The teachers’ union also criticized the education authorities’ “lack of basic administrative support for teachers,” such as offering free testing or paid time off to take the test.

In turn, the education ministry has made the drug test free of charge and announced that teachers subject to it can take a paid day of absence for the testing.