Christa Ludlow, Principal Consultant of Weir Consulting, discusses the legal situation with aggressive and bullying parents, in the context of Work, Health and Safety issues, Criminal Law, and schools’ Duty of Care towards students. She also refers to State and Commonwealth legislation and case law. Christa will give a presentation at a Legalwise Conference in March on the topic, Managing Difficult Colleagues or Bosses.
While previously bullying was associated with children in the schoolyard, increasingly it appears that teachers are becoming the victims of bullying behaviour from parents. This affects their safety in the workplace. Teachers have reported being bullied or harassed at school events, sports grounds, by email and social media.
In 2018 the principal of a prominent Sydney private school recently appealed for parents to behave better and resist taking out their anxiety about their children on the teacher, saying in the school newsletter: “I am having to interact with too many parents who have verbally abused, physically threatened or shouted at a staff member.”
A public school principal in Queensland was the subject of abusive posts on Facebook and Twitter in 2014 when she banned cartwheels in the playground for safety reasons.
According to the 2017 Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey, Principals and deputy/assistant principals experienced a higher prevalence of offensive behaviour at work than the general population (44%), and 1 in 3 principals or 8.4 times the rate of the general population experienced physical threats. Adult bullying was at 36%. While not all of this bullying was by parents, the incidence of threats of violence from parents increased between 2011 and 2017 by more than 10%. Not only is there reason for concern, but the control of bullying and aggression by parents is more legally complicated than that of similar behaviour by colleagues or supervisors at work.
Work, Health and Safety
Under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 in NSW and uniform legislation in other Australian states and territories, the school or the organisation which operates the school must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of its workers while they are at work.
Bullying and aggressive behaviour can pose a risk to the psychological and possibly also physical health of persons subjected to it. Schools must conduct hazard identification and risk assessment of the school workplace. An aggressive or bullying parent may be an identifiable hazard, however the risk may be assessed as low, depending on what information is available.
The school should eliminate or minimise the risk of harm so far as practicable. Where a particular parent is identified as a risk to health and safety, this might extend to prohibiting that parent from entering the school grounds. There are several methods which can be employed to do this (see below).
Bullying of a teacher by a parent using social media is more complicated. The school is unlikely to have any duty to act if the risk arises from comments posted on a private social media account which is not usually accessed while the teacher is “at work”. In any case, a school has no power to stop a parent using social media. Bullying on social media may constitute a criminal offence, however.
Some ways in which a school can act to minimise the risk of harm include:
- Fostering and maintaining a positive and resilient school workplace that helps individuals cope with negative behaviour
- Identifying and supporting teachers who are exposed to such behaviour
- Providing access to an Employee Assistance Program for counselling, coaching and support
- Having effective incident management and support systems.
If a parent’s behaviour is intimidatory or violent, a teacher can apply for an Apprehended Violence Order (AVO) or restraining order from the Local or Magistrate’s Court in the relevant State or territory. In NSW, the teacher could seek the assistance of police to apply for an AVO on his or her behalf. If police decline to seek an AVO the individual may do so, possibly with the assistance of the school.
In NSW, the Inclosed Lands Protection Act 1901, despite its advanced age, still has force to deal with recalcitrant parents. It stipulates that the premises of a government school are “inclosed lands” and persons without a lawful excuse may be requested to leave. If they fail to do so or while there, behave in such a manner as would be regarded by reasonable persons as being, in all the circumstances, offensive, this is a criminal offence. The offence is more serious if the person does anything that gives rise to a serious risk to the safety of the person or any other person on those lands.
In Queensland, the Education (General Provisions) Act 2006 contains offences for insulting a staff member of a State educational institution but only in the presence or hearing of a student. The principal may also give a person an oral direction requiring him or her to immediately leave and not re-enter the premises for 24 hours if the principal reasonably suspects the prohibited person has committed or is about to commit an offence, has used or is about to use, threatening, abusive or insulting language towards another person at the premises; or has engaged, or is about to engage, in threatening or violent behaviour towards another person at the premises. The principal can also issue a written direction about the person’s conduct or movement at the school’s premises which lasts for up to 30 days.
Schools in other jurisdictions or private schools may rely on similar legislation if it exists or the law of trespass, which generally requires a warning or direction to leave the premises to be issued in certain terms. If the person fails to leave after the warning is issued and does not have a lawful excuse, this may be an offence (see for example the Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic)).
Under s 474.15-17 of the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth) it is an offence to use the internet, social media or a telephone in a way that reasonable persons would regard as being, in all the circumstances, menacing, harassing or offensive. The maximum penalty for this offence is three years imprisonment or a fine of more than $30,000.
Some schools may also have the option of issuing a Code of Conduct or in the case of a private school, asking parents to enter into an agreement with the school concerning what is appropriate behaviour by parents. This has been adopted by a number of private schools. Whether such agreements can be enforced is another matter and will depend on what sanctions are imposed in the event of poor behaviour or breakdown of the parent-school relationship.
Duty of care towards students
Violent or aggressive behaviour by parents on school premises may also pose a risk to students who could be distressed or impacted psychologically. It is well established that schools have a duty of care towards the students who attend their schools while at school and arriving and leaving school (Cox v State of New South Wales  NSWSC 471; Geyer v Downs  HCA 64).
The school’s duty of care under the law of negligence extends to taking reasonable steps to protect students against a risk of injury which the school should reasonably have foreseen. This may not extend to an unexpected instance of aggression by a third party, but could extend to an act of aggression by a parent who has been aggressive on previous occasions if the school has not taken reasonable action to prevent that parent from repeating that behaviour on its premises.
Teacher wellbeing is important not only for the individual teacher but more widely, as it is connected to student wellbeing and the effectiveness of the teacher in the classroom. The issue of parent aggression is a complex one and schools should consider their situation and seek legal advice.
Christa Ludlow is a lawyer with over 20 years’ experience in employment law and administrative law, and a qualified coach and mediator. She is a Principal Consultant with WEIR Consulting. WEIR provides workplace conflict resolution, investigation, coaching and training services to clients in the public and private sectors. Contact Christa at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find WEIR Consulting on Facebook and LinkedIn.