Radical solution to end violence and bullying against school principals

Radical solution to end violence and bullying against school principals

To end violence and bullying against school leaders, Education Departments may need to ban violent and abusive parents from school grounds, and prohibit them from contacting principals, says an expert.

On 22 March, the Australian Catholic University’s Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2023, compiled by ACU’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education (IPPE), found that physical violence increased a staggering 76% since the survey first began in 2011.

Of those reporting physical violence, 65% said they had been assaulted by parents and caregivers.

ACU investigator and former principal Dr Paul Kidson says this damning statistic suggests upcoming Education Ministers Meeting in April needs to consider how better to protect school leaders.

He points to Victoria’s Community Safety Order, enacted in 2021, which authorises principals to “stop or limit parents, carers and other adults who behave in harmful, threatening, or abusive ways”, including limiting their physical presence on campus.

“The sad reality – and this is what came through in our data and which was even more compelling this year – is that the reason it doesn't work is not the fault of the school alone; an increasing number of parents, caregivers and their children are not taking their obligations and responsibilities seriously enough," Dr Kidson told The Educator.

“They refuse to treat teachers and principals in ways that we do not accept in any other type of work environment, and it just defies imagination that we are still experiencing this problem at the scale we are.”

Time for tougher action

Dr Kidson, who has been an investigator for the ACU’s survey for the past three years, said communities must reflect on why they allow violent behaviour to go unaddressed.

“We don't want thoughts and prayers, that vacuous language – we need action. Education Ministers need to sit around the table and start thinking, do we need to look at these types of instruments more broadly, across the nation?” he said.

“Regrettably, this needs to be done because there is a continued rejection from some families and caregivers, about their obligations to treat with respect and courtesy, the people charged with educating their children.”

Dr Kidson said parents and caregivers must remember the relationship between families and schools is founded the “simple logic” that parents entrust their children into the school, and in turn, they will be cared for in “an enormously professional, positive and supportive community”.

“And yet, we see too much evidence where if things aren’t going the way a parent would like, they feel it is appropriate and indeed permitted to speak and behave towards teachers and principals reprehensibly,” Dr Kidson said.

“So, I can't characterize banning parents from school grounds and from contacting leaders and teachers as a ‘good’ measure, but it is an effective one. And you see that in the distinction between those threats of violence, the gossip, the slander, the cyber bullying.”

Dr Kidson said it is telling that since the Victorian Government’s Community Safety Order came into effect in 2021, threats of violence and physical violence have been notably lower compared to every other State and Territory.

Departments are listening

Dr Kidson said he is cautiously optimistic that meaningful change is on the horizon.  

“I think that we've got a current crop of ministers who are more open and receptive nationally than I think we've seen for a long time,” he said.

“We've had direct conversations with several departments, and with the Commonwealth directly through our project team.”

Dr Kidson said the good news is that Departments are listening, but said there must be action, not just words.

“Otherwise, you end up doubling down on the frustration because the principal's then say, well, we were consulted about it, and it's making a difference, so why hasn’t there been any action?” he said.

“So, there needs to be more than just ‘thoughts and prayers’, because we don’t want for those principals who are terrific servants of the nation to feel that they're being treated in a platitudinous way and just getting a pat on the head.”