Dealing with Problem Parents

Published
25 March 2015

This article was originally published in Education Law Notes.

Unwarranted and unrealistic demands - long aggressive emails – raised voices and a total absence of any sense of proportion or reality – then a lawsuit!!

We hope that your school never has to deal with parents like these – but just in case you do...

Background

Early in 2009 a family moved to London from France. The three children in the family (two boys aged 10 years and a girl aged 8) were accepted into Hall Schools of Wimbledon. Everyone at the school agreed that the children were delightful.

The two boys in the family were academically gifted. The girl had a minor issue relating to memory and needed a bit more attention in class. However, her academic results still fell within the range of what was considered “normal” for her age.

The problems between the school and the family lay solely with the parents (particularly the mother). The parents had the attitude that nothing was acceptable other than their children being awarded full marks for tests and assignments and achieving excellent results in sports. If these results were not achieved (in the minds of the parents) they would demand explanations from the staff and bombard the school with aggressive emails and letters. The mother even complained about her daughter being given grade A as opposed to A+! The mother’s behaviour had become so alarming that eventually she was not permitted to speak to teaching staff without the Principal being present.

The school had a very clear policy about parental behaviour. It read:

"The school reserves the right to have a child withdrawn from the school when the parent or guardian of that child is guilty of serious or persistent misconduct in relation to a pupil, a member of staff, another parent or to the reputation of the school.”

By early July 2012 the school had endured enough. The Principal wrote to the parents informing them:

“We therefore need to discuss an alternative solution for your children as it does not appear tenable for them to continue their education at this school”.

The main points from the resulting meeting on 6 July 2012 were:
1. The relationship between the school and the parents had irretrievably broken down;
2. The children were in no way to blame;
3. The children must leave the school as a consequence of the relationship breakdown;
4. It would be better if the parents withdrew their children from the school rather than the school expelling the children as an expulsion would then be noted on the children’s school records;
5. The next term’s fees would be waived;
6. A short meeting with teachers would be permitted; and
7. The Principal would write references for the children for the school that the parents sought for them.

The Court Case

The parents claimed that there was a breach of the alleged contract made at the meeting on 6 July 2012. They said that the Principal of the Hall Schools had informed the Principal of Donhead School (the school in which they were trying to enrol the children) that “the parents were subject to a regime of not speaking to teaching staff without the presence of the Principal”. As a result of this information Donhead School refused admission of the children. The parents also assert that the Principal of Hall Schools lied to cover up his dealings with the Principal of Donhead School. The parents sought damages and a permanent injunction restraining the Principal from repeating this information to other school principals.

The Principal of Donhead School said that during his meeting with the parents he had asked them why they were withdrawing their children from Hall Schools. They told him it was due to “communication problems”. As a part of this conversation the parents informed him that they were no longer able to see their sons’ teacher without the Principal of Hall Schools being present. The Principal of Donhead School thought this unusual and raised the issue with the Principal of Hall Schools in a later phone call to him. The Principal of Hall Schools did not initiate the conversation, simply confirmed the facts as presented to him.

In his defence the Principal of Hall Schools stated “At no time during the meeting did I indicate that I would provide supporting references for the parents or agree not to disclose information about them, should I be asked to do so by another Principal. It would have been professionally negligent of me to do so and against custom and practice in the independent school section where Heads rely on open and honest communication between themselves. To prohibit the free-flow of information, between education professionals in situations such as this, would put children and schools at risk.”

So was there a cover-up?

The judge decided ABSOLUTELY NOT. He went on to say

“To suggest the Principals were bare-faced liars was frankly outrageous. They both told me honest and reliable evidence. They leave this court as honest and honourable men as they arrived. “

So was there a breach of contract?

The judge did not believe that there was a fresh contract entered into on 6 July 2012 when the parents were informed that the existing contract was at an end. The Principal had made it clear that the existing contract was at an end and the parents had agreed to withdraw the children from the school.

The assertions by the parents against the Principal of Hall Schools were found to be comprehensively without foundation.

What can we learn?

Every teacher will need to deal with problem parents from time to time. This case is a great example of what a school can do to protect themselves.
1. The school had a clause in their behaviour management policy stating what would happen if parental behaviour was unacceptable.
2. The school’s responses to aggressive correspondence were calm, rational and respectful.
3. Any major issues the parents raised in their correspondence was investigated and responded to.
4. Notes were taken. The judge noted that the notes were not always perfect or complete but also commented that they were completely appropriate for a school.

The judge in this case summed the matter up nicely:

“The focus of any school should be upon the education and welfare of the children who attend. Of course, parents need to play a full role and take a keen interest in their children. All of that is right and proper. But equally, parents must, and most do, appreciate a school is a community that needs to be permitted to get on with its principal task of educating children collectively. No school should be bombarded with unwarrantable demands by parents. Teaching and other staff bear a heavy responsibility in what they do. Looking over their shoulder for fear of litigious parents is an aspect of their professional lives they could all do without.

It is also of critical importance that teachers and others of whatever rank feel able to express their view in references with candour."

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