School Violence: The Delicate Balance Between Staff Safety and Student Duty of Care (Part Two)

30 August 2018

This is the second part of a two-part series exploring violence in schools. Part Two focuses on violence perpetrated by parents and students and how discipline and behaviour management policies impact a school’s reaction. Part One focused on violence against principals and teachers, and the results of the Principal Wellbeing Survey 2017.

Violence perpetrated by parents and students against school staff or students against other students can be costly for staff and student wellbeing. Recent examples in the media of parents abusing teaching staffstudents brawling outside the school gates and stabbing a fellow student illustrate the seriousness of the issue.

Violence Perpetrated by Parents

Dr Collier, a principal at an elite Sydney private school, has sent home a newsletter criticising what he has deemed “a master/servant relationship” which parents are imposing on school staff by behaviour that includes verbally abusing, physically threatening or shouting at staff members.

According to Beth Blackwood, CEO of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia (AHISA), a lot of the disrespectful behaviour from parents comes from the desire of parents to have the best for their child, including seeking to remedy failure where possible. This can be particularly difficult for principals and deputy/assistant principals who must communicate the multiple factors which go into the development and practice of education policy and procedures to teachers, parents and students, sometimes in emotionally charged situations.

Dr Collier also mentioned two other factors which bear considering in a discussion of parental violence against school staff. Dr Collier mentioned that, from his experience, issues may also arise from the rise in single child families, leading to a 'concentration of investment' and the desire for perfection for the one child. Dr Collier also said that it could be a by-product of the rise in violence in greater society with rude or aggressive parents reflecting a rise in rude or aggressive sporting figures or politicians indicating that it is an appropriate way to behave.

Beth Blackwood also stated that there has been a change in the way schools and parents interact:

“What we’ve seen over the years is a shift from a very singular focus on the student as the client, with schools claiming total authority over the education of the child and keeping parents at arm’s length, to what is now a more inclusive embrace with the notion that the family is the customer…So there’s a greater acceptance today of that notion that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, and I see schools working very hard to be a proxy for that village. I think what’s important to remember is that school staff are important members of that village, too, and principals have a legal and moral obligation to protect and support their staff members just as they do in protecting and supporting their students.”

The impact on both school staff and students is far reaching.

Impact of Parental Violence

For students, the aversion of parents to the failure of their children (and the resulting communications with school staff) can have negative effects on long term student welfare including development of self-confidence and resilience.

For school staff, the impact of increased accessibility can lead to increases in stress and anxiety, ultimately leading to a decline in staff morale and welfare.

Both Dr Collier and Beth Blackwood suggest that the best way a school can combat aggressive or violent parents is by setting expectations of behaviour early, even going so far as establishing a Parent Code of Conduct for the school.

It is also important internally that there are clear policies and procedures about reporting incidents with parents and school staff are clear about what actions will be taken after a complaint. Conversely, there should also be a clear policy about parent complaints and complaints handling, with principles of natural justice, the right to a fair hearing without bias and respectful relationships as key components. Schools could also consider communication guidelines for parents indicating when and how teachers and other school staff will respond to any complaints or feedback.

Student Duty of Care and Violence Against Students

With a recent stabbing of a high school student in South Australia and a sprawling brawl outside a school in Western Australia resulting in a broken jaw, schools could be forgiven for thinking that current discipline and behaviour management policies may not be the most appropriate solution. In fact, in Victoria, in 2017, 229 cases of violence against other students involved items that could have been used as weapons, including knives, scissors, guns, screwdrivers, an axe and a pencil. It is no wonder then that in New Zealand the response has been strict with the Ministry of Education and New Zealand School Trustees Association (NZSTA) having released guidelines for schools to develop a firearms policy. Fortunately, in Australia, teachers are empowered through education legislation to have a range of controls when it comes to managing student behaviour and discipline. These controls include:

  • The power to discipline students at any time within or outside the school. Teachers can also issue detentions and confiscate inappropriate items.
  • The power to use reasonable force to prevent students from hurting themselves or others, from damaging property, or from causing disorder. However, the law prevents the use of reasonable force as a punishment.
  • The power to search students or their possessions for prohibited items without consent. These include knives or weapons, alcohol, illegal drugs, stolen items, tobacco and cigarette papers, fireworks and pornographic images. The list also includes any article that teachers reasonably suspect has been, or is likely to be, used to commit an offence, cause personal injury or damage to property.

Child psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg has said violence in schools is a major concern, stating that “We need to teach conflict resolution, I think we need to teach anger management, problem solving… There are a range of social and emotional competencies that are not being taught.”

The health and safety of students and staff should be a high priority in all schools.  If a student regularly compromises the provision of a safe environment for other students and staff, then of course principals should act, in line with legislative and policy requirements, to discipline the student appropriately and, if necessary, suspend or expel them from the school.

However, there are many steps a school can take to create a culture which discourages violence and allows students to thrive in a safe and supportive environment, before having to use the policies and procedures they have in place for discipline or behaviour management.

The School Environment

According to research by Andrews University:

"the school environment can be either a powerful socialising agent or a powerful catalyst for violent behaviour. Schools which function without a clearly enunciated philosophy, mission and vision for education and character development are hotbeds for chaos and disorder. Students within this context are more inclined to model their own system of values, morals and conduct, which may have been learned and reinforced in dysfunctional, destructive or fragmented homes and communities. The consequences are likely to be demonstrated through student violence, intolerance, impulsivity and academic failure."

The school might further contribute to behavioural disorders and academic failure in one or more of the following ways:

  • insensitivity to students’ individuality
  • inappropriate expectations for students
  • inconsistent management of student behaviour
  • punitive punishments, or
  • undesirable models of school conduct.

According to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, students are more likely to be violent if:

  • they spend a lot of time copying out work from textbooks
  • their teachers spend more time keeping control of the class than teaching
  • the students at their school are racist
  • kids who make racist remarks at the school don't get into trouble with the teachers
  • teachers do not intervene to stop bullying when they know about it, or
  • they were never formally told the school rules.

How Teachers Can Create a Culture Resistant to School Violence

UNESCO’s teacher’s guide to “Stopping Violence in Schools” examines the scale and impact of violence against students and offers 10 practical suggestions to teachers for preventing any act of violence:

  1. Advocate a holistic approach to tackling violence and include parents, students, school staff and the community.
  2. Make students partners in violence prevention through education.
  3. Make use of positive discipline techniques and methods.
  4. Be an active and effective force to stop bullying.
  5. Build students’ resilience and help them to respond to everyday challenges constructively.
  6. Be a positive role model.
  7. Be an advocate for school safety mechanisms including strong governance and strong codes of conduct.
  8. Provide safe and welcoming spaces for students.
  9. Learn and teach violence prevention and conflict resolution skills.
  10. Recognise violence and discrimination in the school and call it out to the students.

With the support of the entire school community, including parents, students and staff, schools can create an environment where violence in all its forms is discouraged. Despite practices and procedures which discourage violence, the health and safety of students and staff should be a high priority in all schools, and all schools should also have appropriate discipline or behaviour management policies when the expectations surrounding student or parental conduct within the school grounds are not followed.

Lauren Osbich

Lauren is a Content Development and Legal Research Consultant at CompliSpace. She has over ten years of experience in legal research and legal publishing, working nationally across Australia. She studied at Macquarie University completing a Bachelor of Laws with an Honours in English, followed by being admitted as a solicitor of the NSW Supreme Court. Lauren is also passionate about giving back to the community through the not for profit sector as well as donating time to mentor and coach young lawyers in their professional development and finding time to also be a member of a not for profit Board.