New laws touted after principals bashed, threatened

Violence against principals is only getting worse, and requires a strong proactive response from society, say the nation’s principals.

The calls come after a principal in Rockhampton, Western Australia, took extended leave after being punched in the face and chest by a parent and another adult – the second such attack in two months.

The latest assault comes less than two weeks after a male principal from a school in the Armadale area was allegedly shoved up against a wall by a parent and threatened.

Principals now say that a national conversation is needed to address what is a “societal problem” that affects not only principals’ health and safety but the future of the profession itself.

Australian Principals Federation (APF) national president, Ron Bamford, told The Educator that given the frequency of these attacks, mandatory jail terms for people convicted of assaulting public officers – such as police – should extend to those who assault principals.

Western Australia introduced the controversial law in 2009 following the brutal bashing of a police officer.

“Principals are public officers and are seven times more likely than members of the general public to be physically assaulted,” Bamford said.

“We have legislation that allows principals to prohibit parents from coming on to the school site, but that doesn’t stop them from harming principals when they leave the school gates.”

And these incidents are “just the tip of the iceberg”, WA Primary Principals’ Association (WAPPA) president Stephen Breen told The Educator.

“One of the things that our association has been saying for a while is that we’re good at reacting to these incidents but we’re hopeless at proactivity in this area,” Breen said.

“To me, it’s like trying to solve a major problem of society in a major school, but this cannot be solved by an education department. It’s a societal problem, and one that needs society to stand up and say ‘we’ve had enough of this’.”

He added that the consequences were not only the physical and mental abuse itself, but also “the long-term viability of the profession”.

“The concern that I have as a professional educator is hearing the talk around the place by teachers and deputy principals who ask ‘why would I want to be a principal?’” Breen said. 

“There are a lower number of people who are putting their hands up to become a principal, and this is across all three school sectors.”

Breen said education departments need to trust principals and back them up in their disputes with angry parents, adding that while principals’ integrity is scrutinised on a regular basis, the department fails to support them when they are forced into situations outside their control.

“A principal’s job is to manage teaching and learning – not going into a fight with a parent we know will never listen,” Breen said.

“We need some authority to say ‘we’ve listened and the principal is on the right track’. We need a circuit-breaker at that level.”

Australian Primary Principals Association president, Dennis Yarrington, told The Educator that parents should question what they’re communicating to their children if they use violence to get power and control.

“It is not acceptable for anyone to think they have the right to assault or abuse another person. It is time to have the conversation on what is acceptable and what is not,” Yarrington said.

“I would call on employers and jurisdictions to respond and provide a safe working environment for everyone, including principals. Increasing protection is not the only answer. It is education and informing parents about how to address concerns.”

NSW Secondary Principals Council (SPC) president, Lila Mularczyk, told The Educator that school leaders mitigate against potential issues such as physical attacks via a risk assessment process.

“Schools and school leaders have quite explicit policy to follow if an incident occurs. This includes contacting school security, safety procedures and contacting the police for support, remediation and/or follow-up,” Mularczyk said.

But like Breen, Bamford believes the nation’s education departments need to be more proactive rather than relying on existing protocols, adding there was “no proactive response” to violence against principals in WA schools and that this was becoming an increasing problem.

“We need to let the community know that they’re dealing with public officers and public officers need to be protected,” he said.

Bamford said that principals were once given the same de-escalation training as police, and reintroducing this training – while being a preliminary measure – would be a step in the right direction.

“Some years ago, when principals encountered an angry individual, they would use what was called ‘verbal judo’ techniques in order to calm the person down to the point where they could have a normal conversation,” Bamford said.

“I think all principals should have that sort of training today.”

WAPPA will hold a meeting with the police commissioner in November which is expected to include calls for better protection for principals.