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Where once school principals were treated with deference and respect, today they are often met with aggression and conflict. By Jane Caro.

The bullying of school leadership by parents

St Andrew’s Cathedral School principal John Collier.
Credit: ABC

A father storms into the front office of his daughter’s school and begins to shout abuse. He is responding to a text he’s just received in which she tells him she is being bullied. He tells the office staff he wants to march to her classroom and “belt” the bully; they refuse to tell him where his daughter is. In the end, he tries to coerce the principal into going outside so they can “sort it out like men”.

A father objects to the decision of his daughter’s school to veto a sexist and racist slogan she wants on her school sweatshirt. He is so irate that he takes his complaints to the education minister and accuses the school of running a “cult”. He also starts an online group devoted to abusing and defaming the staff and principal at his daughter’s school.

A female principal disciplines a student for bullying; the student’s father belongs to an online group promoting men’s rights. The principal and her staff find themselves threatened with bashings – to the extent the Department of Education provides workplace security – while also being trolled and defamed. The head of the P&C is sent abusive text messages.

A female principal is wedged between the door and the doorjamb by an out-of-control father. She has tried to leave the room where he’s been shouting abuse at her but he leans his weight on the door and refuses to release her. She ends up with bruises.

I have been hearing a growing unease about the abusive behaviour of parents towards school staff and, particularly, school principals for more than a decade now, backed up by a number of recent studies on principal wellbeing. At the recent New South Wales Secondary School Principals’ Annual Conference in June that rumble had become a roar. Every principal I spoke to has experienced similar things to the incidents above, but female principals seem to cop a particularly nasty form of abuse. A male principal told me: “I have witnessed this with female deputy principals. The language of the abuse is different, and it is often more demeaning to them personally.” A female principal put it even more bluntly: “Most encounters with abusive parents, male and female, clearly demonstrate absolute sexism. I often say this would not happen if I was a man.” Her view is that many people still find it hard to accept female authority. “There is also a sense that if I was a male principal, parents would accept (not agree with) my decisions and take the matter no further, but because I am a woman, they take the matter to my superiors to tell me what to do.” Another female principal concurs, giving an example where she was relentlessly patronised by a male parent, addressed as “darling”, given orders about having documents to hand when next he rang, and micromanaged to make sure she “got it right”.

Most principals seem to agree that this kind of disrespect and out-of-control behaviour is increasing. They put this down to myriad reasons – social media gives angry people the opportunity to unload publicly and parents are more anxious and stressed generally. Other reasons cited by the principals I spoke to are increasing mental health issues in parents, the media encouraging abuse because it creates sensational stories, and a general lack of respect for authority, including school authority. Another experienced principal put it this way: “We are becoming more and more aggressive towards each other in many ways, and the problem manifests itself in schools because we are easily accessible to the community and the work we do is complex. Parents are more frustrated, seeking easier solutions to their own problems, and expecting schools to solve those problems.”

St Andrew’s Cathedral School principal John Collier wrote a school newsletter about bad parental behaviour last year that went viral. He also put the rise of this poor behaviour down to an increase in parental anxiety and an unrealistic concern about poor marks or an overprotective response when a child is disciplined. He pointed out that he has a duty of care not only to his students but also to his staff. He was surprised at the response, not just in education but across all sorts of sectors, including health and local councils. He wrote the newsletter because, while the number of problem parents in his school was small, he was keen to make sure the numbers did not grow. A case of not all parents being abusive, perhaps, but certainly all principals copping it.

The acting head of the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council, Craig Petersen, agrees the increase in aggressive and abusive behaviour from parents is driven by increasing anxiety and “blind support of the child that fails to take into account the reality of normal adolescent immaturity and behaviour”. The tragedy of this is that far from protecting their children, such blindness can be very damaging. Dannielle Miller, the chief executive of Enlighten Education, believes that what our teens need is for parents to be the calm among the chaos. “If we go in with all guns blazing, we are only fuelling the flames of their fury,” she says. “We need to model how to take a deep breath, and then handle conflict respectfully.” Miller cautions that by reacting emotionally parents run the risk of further alienating themselves not just from the school, but also from their own child. “Sometimes when teens vent, they view a situation in quite a heightened way,” she argues. “Later, when they have calmed down, they may actually be willing to concede the teacher they were upset with is actually firm – but also fair.” Teens will then turn their critical gaze onto their parent for being heavy-handed, she warns. Collier agrees. In his newsletter he pointed out that if the abusive parents asked their kids’ opinion of their behaviour, their kids would tell them to “chill”.

Another complaint by principals facing an increasing onslaught of parental abuse is how alone and unsupported many of them feel. Principals absorb the brunt of this behaviour because they see it as their duty to do so. “Principals see part of their role as protecting the individual teacher, the staff generally, the students and the school as a whole,” said one. “… The personal toll on principals in this respect is massive.” They also feel unsupported by school authorities and yet expected as members of a caring profession to respond supportively themselves. “The problem with you lot is you are too nice,” said a police officer friend of one principal. “You think you need to take every single nutter seriously. In the police force if someone is a jerk, we tell them they are a jerk.” The principal who told me this story was sympathetic to the advice. “While I don’t agree with all of his sentiments,” the principal said, “I do think our bureaucracy is far too tolerant of nutters.”

The consequences of this increase in abusive and threatening behaviour is that an already extraordinarily demanding and complex job becomes even harder and less rewarding. It is already more difficult than it was to attract applicants for principals’ positions and if we don’t start to have a more honest conversation about this problem, we risk losing many of the excellent principals we already have. A female principal was unequivocal – “I love my job, the school, the students, working in education of our young, but I often think lately that I don’t need this garbage in my life. Parental abuse is the thing that will drive me out of the profession into retirement.” Another principal was even more sobering about what will happen if we continue to turn a blind eye to this behaviour. “It will set the community standard,” she said. What a hostile world that would be.

I asked the principals I interviewed what they thought could help improve the situation. They were unanimous in their desire for more support from educational authorities. One principal suggested that a public awareness campaign about why educators are entitled to courtesy and respect in their workplaces – like everyone else – was needed. Personally, I also think the fact public school principals are gagged by their employers from speaking directly about such issues – the main reason none have been named here – is problematic, as we rarely hear their side of the story. Some principals now distribute guidelines for behaviour to parents as well as students and refuse to interact with anyone who breaks them. Perhaps we need an education ombudsman whose job it is to deal with conflict between parents and school executives before it descends into abuse, threats and – occasionally – actual violence.

While all of these might help to an extent, I find it hard to disagree with Craig Petersen. “We need to look at what we want as a broader community, as a whole society,” he says. “At the moment we seem to be using aggression and conflict to solve problems. Is it any wonder we are seeing the same behaviour in our schools?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 10, 2019 as "Batter of principals". Subscribe here.

Jane Caro
is a Sydney-based novelist, writer and documentary maker.