The annual The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Well-being Surveys show that for school leaders, dealing with angry and/or violent staff, students and parents is a leading cause of stress and anxiety.
As miscommunication can be a trigger for these clashes, state education departments have been working on how to mitigate the risk of potentially explosive altercations and avoid legal showdowns – or worse.
Earlier this month, a new charter by the NSW Education Department outlined the expectations of schools and their communities on how they communicate and collaborate to create a positive learning environment.
The charter clarifies examples of unacceptable behaviour with the aim of ensuring the wellbeing of students, staff and the school community.
The Department provided examples of these behaviours, which include aggressive or intimidating actions and language, discriminating by race of disability and inappropriate and time-wasting communication.
“School community charters have long been a feature within independent and Catholic school systems and public school deserve the same,” NSW Education Minister, Rob Stokes, said.
“Quality education requires everyone in a school community to work together,” Stokes said. That means relationships built on honesty and mutual respect, and on timely, polite communication.”
Stokes added that “it is a question of developing a genuine partnership to support students, in which everyone is treated fairly and diversity is fully respected”.
Managing angry parents
Jacquie Seemann, a partner with Thomson Geer, says that in an altercation, the instinct is to fight fire with fire, but she warns this is a bad idea.
“Sometimes, the best response at the time is no response at all other than to say; ‘Your behaviour is unacceptable, I’m not cooperating with this, and I will be getting back to you’,” Seemann told The Educator.
If a school is struggling to remove an aggressive parent from the property, there is also the option of invoking the Inclosed Lands Protection Act (NSW) which stipulates that a school can require somebody to leave if they’re conducting themselves “in such a manner as would be regarded by reasonable persons as being, in all the circumstances, offensive.”
If the parent’s behaviour warrants more long-term action, there are a number of legal options open to schools.
“Some parent behaviour gets so bad that it may be an implication that the parent is causing a risk to the safety of a child – whether their own or someone else’s – and that might trigger a reporting obligation,” Seemann said.
AVOs an option for threatened principals
Schools could also potentially assist a person (eg. principal, teacher or parent) to file for an Apprehended Violence Order (AVO) if a parent’s behaviour became too aggressive.
“Let’s say a parent is threatening the principal, the principal could seek an AVO which would say the person they fear can’t be within a kilometre of the principal, including school grounds,” she said.
While those options are available to both private and public schools, Seemann says private schools have even more freedom to handle unacceptable behaviour as they’re able to write their own enrolment agreements.
“If you’re a private school, you’ve got the option of banning the parent or ultimately even expelling the child based on a written enrolment contract – that’s the most fundamental power that a private school has that a state school doesn’t have,” she said.
Seemann added that private schools can include a clear set of expectations for parents in their enrolment agreements – if those expectations are breached, the relationship can be terminated.
“Like any kind of disciplinary or management process, it’s about saying; ‘We told you what we expected, you didn’t do what we expected, you’ve broken the rules so how are we doing to deal with that?’” she said.