Parent bullies: It is time to reclaim respect for the profession

Abuse of school staff by parents or others at school or school related activities, often in the presence of students, is not uncommon, writes Rachel Drew.

This is a difficult area for the law to address adequately, but there are a number of remedies worth considering in appropriate cases.

This article focuses on remedies available to teachers and school staff for conduct of parents and school community members, not students. Many remedies available against an abusive parent are not available against a student.

Assault, attempted assault and threats of assault

Any form of physical violence or threats of violence constitute criminal offences. A parent committing an assault or threatening a teacher or school staff is a criminal offence.

School staff members are entitled to make a complaint to police officers requesting that they initiate proceedings to prosecute the parent for assault. It is not for the principal or for the school to report the matter to police; the staff member should personally contact police.

If you are the victim of a physical assault, or if threats lead to feelings of anxiety in connection with your employment, we recommend you consider making a workers’ compensation claim. A damages claim against the parent is also an option, although care would need to be taken to ensure such a claim was worthwhile.

Assaults against teachers and school staff in the course of their duties are taken more seriously by the criminal law because of the nature of schools and the right to safety.

Online threats

Online threats of physical harm can be criminal and police can respond in the same way as a verbal threat.

Additional protection exists under Section 474.17 of the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth):

(1) A person is guilty of an offence if:

(a) the person uses a carriage service; and

(b) the person does so in a way (whether by the method of use or the content of a communication, or both) that reasonable persons would regard as being, in all the circumstances, menacing, harassing or offensive.

Penalty: Imprisonment for three years.”

A carriage service is a service for carrying communications, which includes telephone, email and all online social media.

Online threats to reputation, not threats of harm, are dealt with under the defamation law.

Abusive or disruptive behaviour

Queensland law has a specific provision making it unlawful for parents to insult school staff members.

Section 333 of the Education (General Provisions) Act 2006 (Qld), reads as follows:

“Wilful disturbance

(1) A person must not wilfully disturb the good order or management of a State educational institution.

(2) A person must not insult a staff member of a State educational institution in the presence or hearing of a student of the institution, who is, at the time in question –

(a) in or about the institution; or

(b) assembled with others for educational purposes at or in any place.

Pursuant to subsection 333(2), this section applies not only in the school grounds, but also when students are “assembled with others for educational purposes at or in any place”.

Clearly, this would include school sporting events, visits to art galleries and museums etc.

Other states have similar provisions under legislation such as the Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic) which makes it a criminal offence to do any of the following in or near a public place:

(a) Use profane, indecent, or obscene language, or threatening, abusive or insulting words; or

(b) Behave in a riotous, indecent, offensive or insulting manner.

While this is not school specific legislation, the definition of ‘public place’ includes any government school, or land or premises in connection with the school.

There are similar protections applicable to school staff, although not always school specific, which are available in every Australian state.

Bullying conduct over telephone or through social media can also be dealt with under Section 474.17 of the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth) as set out above.

Personal Safety and Good Behaviour Orders

All Australian states have a court process available, usually through the magistrate’s court, for school staff members who are concerned about their safety to apply for a protection order or restraining order.

The name of the order varies between states and the description of the level of assault or threat is also different from state to state.

In Victoria, Personal Safety Intervention Orders Act 2010 (Vic) provides the procedure for these orders. In Queensland, it is the Peace and Good Behaviour Act 1982 (Qld). The Justices Act 1959 in Tasmania provides the application and approval process for restraining orders. The NSW Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 allows the court to make an Apprehended Personal Violence Order.

Under each law, school staff are entitled to apply for a magistrate to make an order to protect themselves from physical or mental harm caused by a person in the school community.

The type of threat that needs to be proven differs but generally the court needs to be satisfied on the balance of probabilities that:

  • The respondent has committed some form of aggressive behaviour against the affected person, such as a physical assault, a direct threat or by stalking the person. The aggressive behaviour can be towards the person or towards the person’s property
  • That the person is likely to continue to do so or do so again, which may require a pattern of past behaviour or specific threat of repeating the behaviour, and
  • The behaviour would cause a reasonable person to fear for their safety.

The order will impose conditions on how the parent can behave towards the applicant. The respondent must follow the conditions of the order.

Orders of this nature can be initiated by any school staff member and does not rely on support from police to bring the charges.

A letter to the parents

The institution of legal action is not necessarily the appropriate step, at least in the first instance.

The seriousness of parents’ conduct can either be explained to them by the principal or other appropriate administrator or can be explained in a legal letter. Considerable care must be taken to ensure the tone of the letter is appropriate and that the school staff member has the support of the school for the letter.

Unlawful stalking

Stalking laws may be helpful to a small number of teachers and school staff who find themselves in more extreme situations.

Stalking is a crime everywhere in Australia under state laws. Stalking involves a persistent course of conduct or actions by a person which are intended to maintain contact with or exercise power and control over another person. These actions cause distress, loss of control, fear or harassment to another person. The stalking needs to be a pattern of behaviour to attract police response.

Victims of unlawful stalking may make a complaint to the police. While the problem is a difficult one, there are a number of options open to teachers and school staff who are abused by parents in or in relation to the discharge of their duties.

Advice can be sought through the Union and careful consideration will be given to any particular case.

School staff are entitled to a safe workplace. You are entitled to be safe, and more importantly, to feel safe.

Most staff-parent relationships are positive, supportive and respectful. For the small number which are not, it is time to reclaim respect for the profession from all parents.

Rachel Drew is a Partner at Holding Redlich