How should principals deal with aggressive parents?

How should principals deal with aggressive parents?

If there’s one part of the job principals don’t look forward to, it’s dealing with aggressive parents.

In 2021, the Victorian Education Department sought to put a stop to this long-standing problem by giving principals the power to ban aggressive parents or carers from school grounds.

While Victorian principals were already able to issue a ‘trespass order’ under warranted circumstances, the new laws apply to parents or carers who communicate with school staff in an abusive or threatening way, dramatically raising the stakes for online ‘trolls’ and ‘keyboard warriors’.

The ‘Education and Training Reform Amendment (Protection of School Communities) Bill 2021’, passed on 3 May 2021, empowers authorised staff to issue School Community Safety Orders to parents, carers and other people who engage in harmful, threatening or abusive behaviour. Those who refuse to comply can be referred to a Magistrate's Court.

Paul O’Halloran, a Partner and Accredited Specialist in Workplace Relations at law firm Dentons, said Victoria has been particularly sensitive to the issue due to some tragic cases that have taken place in its schools.

“These cases demonstrate the extreme stress school principals are under in their jobs,” O’Halloran told The Educator.

“For example, in 2014, Dr Mark Thompson, a well-respected principal of Eltham Primary School, sadly took his own life after a parent accused him of discriminating against their child. At the time, he was suffering from workplace stress and working up to seven days a week.”

The wife of Dr Thompson subsequently made a Workcover dependents compensation claim on the basis that workplace stress contributed to her husband’s death. The 18-month investigation, which concluded in May 2016, found that work-related stress contributed to Thompson’s suicide.

O’Halloran said that in addition to being proactive about protecting its principals from aggressive parents, Victoria has also been a leader in implementing recommendations from the Royal Commission and rolling out progressive Child Safe Standards,

“So, it is no surprise that Victoria is leading the way in dealing with aggressive parents since the introduction of the Education and Training Reform Amendment [Protection of School Communities] Bill 2021, which now enables schools to issue school community safety orders to parents, carers and other people who engage in harmful, threatening or abusive behaviour,” he said.

How principals can respond

To help in dealing with aggressive parents, O’Halloran said principals in Victoria should consider issuing a school community safety order.

“The orders will allow schools to impose requirements on the way parents, carers or other adult members of the community interact with the school community – including stopping them from entering school grounds or other locations where school events are occurring,” he said.

“In the event that a person fails to comply with a school community safety order, an application can be made to the Magistrates' Court for an order requiring compliance, a civil penalty of up to $10,000, or any other order that the Court considers appropriate.”

O’Halloran pointed out that in other States, principals will need to have recourse to rights that might exist under parental codes of conduct or enrolment contracts, which might provide for mediation, or expulsion of a student as a consequence of the bad behaviour of the parent or carer.

“In some cases, I have arranged mediation between schools and aggrieved parents, but this is not helpful if the parent is abusive. In other cases, sadly the children of the aggressive or hostile parent have been expelled,” he said.

“While this might sound like an extreme option, it is important that schools comply with work health and safety laws, and ensure staff are not subjected to the psychological or physical risks of dealing with violent and aggressive parents in the workplace, because this can lead to stress, high turnover, workers compensation claims or worse.”