As any principal knows, there are many circumstances in which a school may find itself in an uneasy position of conflict between a student and one or both of their parents.
This conflict can arise over various issues, such as parent pick-up arrangements, accessing student information, and involvement in school activities. Notably, a school is typically not a party to family court proceedings. Therefore, it must be informed of any orders that could affect how it exercises its duty of care to a student.
Mathisha Panagoda is a partner in Colin Biggers & Paisley's insurance team. He says a common example of a parental court order that occurs is when a parent is intending to pick up a student from the school and the other parent objects, placing the school in the invidious position of being caught in the middle of a family dispute.
“Schools and teachers must understand the scope of their duty of care, any parenting court orders in place and have policies and procedures to deal with, and where possible avoid, such conflicts occurring at the school gates,” Panagoda told The Educator.
“In the unfortunate situation where an apprehended domestic violence order [ADVO] is in place against a parent and for the protection of the student, generally the parent still is entitled to have access to the student if parenting orders are in place [i.e. giving the ADVO parent custody on say a particular weeknight].”
Panagoda said if that parent is displaying signs of aggression, the school is aware of the ADVO and these aggressive behaviours may expose the child to a risk of harm, the school should ensure that that risk of harm is minimised to the best of its ability.
“This will involve a careful consideration of each situation and may escalate to the involvement of the police,” he said.
“Schools should remember that a primary consideration at all times, including with respect to parenting orders, ADVOs and duty of care, is to ensure the safety of vulnerable persons under their protection. A school will need to manage this, whilst also ensuring that it maintains the safety of its teaching staff.”
In the absence of explicit court orders, principals can proactively address potential conflicts between parents and students by ensuring their school has clear policies to assist staff, students, and their parents, says Panagoda.
“Those policies should set out the obligations of parents and students, and how conflicts will be addressed should they arise. A school's primary role is to educate a child – not to mediate family disputes.”
“Policies should be school specific and role specific. We recommend that all teachers are aware of conflict resolution strategies and can use these to assist where possible.”
However, Panagoda noted that where a situation escalates to violence, aggression or potential harm to the student, teachers should also be trained to recognise these factors and know the appropriate channels to escalate – whether that be internally within the school, or to external services such as the Police or Family & Community Services.
“The frequency of training will very much depend on the school, but we recommend generally that all policies be reviewed, and training undertaken on an annual basis.”
Panagoda said the school leaders the firm encounters are doing an “excellent job managing these issues with the resources available to them”, but noted the fact that many continue to seek legal advice indicates that better education, awareness, and support are needed.
“The complexity and breadth of legal issues for schools today are such that it is almost impossible for a school and its teachers to be aware of all legal updates and best practices whilst focussing on the primary task of educating children,” he said.
“This is where we assist in advising schools both on a proactive basis and with reference to practical examples, and also providing general legal counsel to our clients when matters arise.”