A key challenge for education professionals is managing difficult situations involving parents. These can include dealing with angry parents at the school gates, but could also involve responding to comments made online or in correspondence. Difficult interactions with parents bring with them the risk of reputational damage, regulatory investigations, distress to staff and risks to personal safety. It’s therefore vital that schools have detailed and effective policies in place for dealing with such matters and mitigating the attendant risks.
From a legal perspective it’s important to maintain a record of specific incidents, or all interactions with frequently difficult parents. That way, in the event that a complaint or allegation is made against the school or a member of staff relating to an interaction, there will be evidence available to defend your position. Maintaining such records also means that if a situation becomes serious enough to warrant taking legal action against a threatening or abusive parent, you will have evidence that gives you a better chance of obtaining the relevant order from the Court. The most basic procedure school leaders can implement to protect the school and its staff is to require those who are involved in, or witness to, such incidents to prepare a written statement. These should always be made following any incident that involves threatening, intimidating, violent or abusive behaviour. Where there are ongoing concerns regarding the behaviour of parents or guardians, you should require statements to be made after all interactions. Written statements should always note the time, date and location of the incident, as well as the names of those present at the time. It should then set out the details of the interaction, how the professional involved responded and their reasons for doing so. The statement should be completed as soon as possible after the incident. School leaders may find it helpful to draw up a reporting template for staff to use in such instances, set specific requirements for how these are to be filled in and name a designated senior leader who must be notified of any incidents. Where behaviour is violent, threatening or intimidating, this should be reported to the police. Schools have additional responsibilities for reporting any safeguarding concerns to Social Services, which should be reflected in the relevant policies.
A related concern is malicious or threatening correspondence from parents, which presents a slightly different set of challenges. Your policies and procedures should require that any malicious or threatening correspondence be retained. If it is threatening or intimidating, or gives rise to child protection concerns, it should be reported to the police or Social Services as appropriate. Then there is communication via the internet. A key difference that can arise here, however, is that such communications are frequently public, with greater potential for libellous or defamatory statements to be made. School leaders may be reluctant to pursue legal action against parents – understandably, given the potential to damage relationships with the parent body as a whole. Nevertheless, defamatory or libellous statements can have a severe effect on the school and on any individuals involved, so you need to ensure that any such statements are removed. The first step set out in school policies here should be to seek specialist legal advice. A solicitor will be able to advise you on the options available given the specific circumstances, and how to escalate the action you take appropriately to ensure the best result at the lowest cost – financially, in terms of the relationship with the parent body, and in terms of the relationship with your employees. Finally, school leaders should ensure that their policies and procedures generally reflect current legislation and best practice, so as to minimise the chances of conflicts arising with parents in the first instance.
Matthew Poli is head of commercial and employment law at Palmers Solicitors; for more information visit www.palmerslaw.co.uk or follow @PalmersLaw