As discussed in our School Governance article last week, a new education-related Act has been assented to in South Australia that is expected to come into operation in early 2020. It includes provisions that are designed to protect teachers and other staff acting in the course of their duties from offensive behaviour and abusive, threatening or insulting language. Education Minister, John Gardner was quoted as saying in relation to these new provisions that “bigger fines for unruly parents were warranted because of the “appalling” behaviour of parents who were “oblivious to the extraordinary damage” they did to staff and students.” More serious financial penalties will be introduced and a principal will have the ability to bar the offending person from school premises if this type of behaviour occurs.
In the last few weeks there have also been a number of articles in the media regarding aggressive or, as John Marsden writes in The Guardian, “toxic parents”. Marsden comments “We are seeing an epidemic of damaging parenting at the moment.”
The West Australian also reported on an article that was published in the AHISA Independence Journal where Julian Dowse, a former principal of a Perth non-government school, deplored parents’ haste to criticise schools in “ill-informed” and “hysterical” emails. The West Australian quoted Dowse as saying, “Managing parents’ expectations amid a constant barrage of social media was one of the biggest problems facing school leaders”.
More recently, The West Australian reported that the Western Australian Education Minister Sue Ellery has launched protocols at the WA Primary Principal’s Association Conference to assist schools to deal with aggressive or intimidating emails from parents. According to the report “Teachers and principals will be free to ignore parents who send offensive or threatening emails under new communication protocols for WA public schools. Principals called for the guidelines to help them deal with a rise in online threats and serial, time-wasting complainers”.
Our 2015 School Governance article noted “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”. Then in a 2016 School Governance article we commented that many schools have issues with parents who for a variety of reasons, have problems with the school, a teacher at the school or the procedures that operate within the school and sometimes these parents fail to raise their concerns according to school policy or in line with the requirements of their enrolment contract.
A Complaints Policy
In our most recent article regarding Complaints and Social Media, we argued that sometimes this failure is because school complaints processes are not well known, not easily accessible or considered to be too difficult, or perhaps the parents believe that they will not be heard fairly. Sometimes the parents will use the correct channels and procedures but then do not wish to abide by the outcomes of the grievance process. It can be very frustrating if schools believe that they have followed a fair process and the parents are perceived as not “following the umpire’s decision”.
However, it could be argued that even an angry parent is better than an absent parent. While they can be very unpleasant, their anger often conveys advocacy. Parents will generally cooperate if they truly believe that the school cares about their child, has their child's interest at heart and respects them as the parents.
Nonetheless, aggressive emails, intimidatory behaviour, a failure to follow the school’s complaints process or just failing to perceive that the school also wants the best for the child, warrants school intervention not only in the interests of the child, but to also protect the teachers and school staff. No school principal looks forward to interviews with aggrieved parents who are either aggressive or intimidatory in their approach, however, it has become a more regular occurrence in recent years.
The Parent Code of Conduct
Some schools believe that if they have a ‘Parent Code of Conduct’ and ensure that this is incorporated into their enrolment contract, they can exercise their ‘right to admonish’ parents who breach the code, by ending the enrolment of their child. However, be very careful, because in most cases the child themself has done no wrong and the expulsion of the child could be seen as discrimination against the child. Alternatively, the enrolment could be cancelled, or the parents could agree to withdraw their child.
If the situation escalates to the point where the ongoing enrolment of the child is brought into question, schools should always seek legal advice before progressing down this path.
In addition, if schools choose to use a code of conduct for parents, they would be advised to use terms such as: Parents are expected to follow the Parent Code of Conduct. Serious breaches of the code may lead to the withdrawal of your children from the School. The terms ‘serious’ and ‘may’ both allow a generous scope for interpretation by the school. In addition, each case would have to be judged on its own merit, and once again, in conjunction with legal advice.
In most schools, the enrolment contract usually only identifies who is legally liable to pay the fees. Codes of conduct, although valuable tools to ensure that parents are aware of their rights and responsibilities, can be more difficult to enforce. It can be extremely problematic to end the enrolment of a student solely on the basis of the behaviour of a parent.
It is a reality that every school (and most teachers) will need to deal with unwarranted demands by parents from time to time. However, there are a number of mitigation strategies that schools can engage in to seek to protect themselves from this risk:
- The school’s complaints policy should be easily accessible by parents and guardians and it should be followed precisely by the school.
- Schools should include a clause in their parent code of conduct stating what would happen if parental behaviour was found to be unacceptable.
- A clear reference to the Parent Code of Conduct should be included in the enrolment contract for every child.
- All responses to aggressive correspondence and aggressive behaviour should always be calm, rational and respectful.
- Any complaints or major issues that the parents raise in their correspondence or at an interview must be investigated and responded to expeditiously and in keeping with the school’s complaint’s policy.
- Notes must always be taken and stored. Handwritten notes taken during difficult interviews may not always be perfect or complete, but they are far better than nothing.
The 2015 School Governance article referred to above discusses a lawsuit in England between a non-government school and some aggrieved parents. Having the above strategies in place helped to provide a favourable outcome for the school in the particular circumstances. The judge who presided over a lawsuit between two parents and their children’s school summed up the matter 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.