Legal: Abuse and harrassment by parents: what can you do?
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 126 No 1, 12 February 2021, page no.27
Abuse and harassment of teachers by parents is a disheartening and unpleasant trend that can leave members feeling threatened, unsupported and disillusioned in their jobs.
Often a parent may have been criticising their teaching ability on Facebook, or calling them a bully or a “tyrant” because they try to run an orderly school. They may make allegations that a member sexually abuses children, or physically threaten a teacher. We once dealt with an online allegation that the teacher involved took regular sex trips overseas because their partner had been seriously injured and wasn’t “putting out”. While it is undoubtedly true that this type of cowardly rubbish always reflects more badly on the author than the target, there is no doubt it can be distressing for those who are being abused.
One of the basic jobs of parenthood is to teach your children to treat others with respect, but it can seem that this fundamental life lesson has skipped a generation. QTU members find themselves facing childish abuse from the parents of the children they teach. With nowhere else to turn they seek help from the Union’s legal service.
There are no easy legal solutions to resolve the type of “low level” abuse that has become so common. We regularly deal with cases in which members have endured harassment from a particular parent for years and despite their pleas, the Department of Education, as their employer, has failed to do anything practical to support them, and sometimes seems to work against them.
In a recent case, a member provided details of the defamatory and abusive emails a parent had been repeatedly sending to her, cc’ing a number of her colleagues. We prepared and sent a defamation concerns notice. This is a letter setting out the defamatory statements that have been made and placing the “offender” on notice that it is open to the member to sue them for defamation.
The reality is that defamation law is of little assistance against keyboard warriors, who have no real assets to lose and whom cannot be shown to have financially damaged their targets in any significant way. But sometimes the letter can act as deterrent or wakeup call and may be worth a try.
On this occasion, the parent was so offended to receive the concerns notice they complained to the Department of Education. Unfortunately, rather than doing something to support its employee, DET decided instead to investigate the teacher for having provided a “public record” (the parents’ abusive email to the member’s departmental address) to a “third party” (the Union’s solicitors).
With pending defamation law reforms set to make it even more difficult to take civil action against this type of abuse, and with the employer reluctant to do anything that might result in an unfavourable “angry parent” media story, it can seem that the only option for members is to “suck it up”.
However, when the abuse becomes too outrageous, too upsetting and too damaging to ignore, there is always something we can do to support the member.
In the past we have been able to “encourage” a regional office to completely bar the parent from communicating directly with the teacher. We have helped members’ alert police to their ability to charge an abuser for “Using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence” (a federal offence that carries three years imprisonment). We’ve advocated for peace and good behaviour bonds and have publically shamed abusers with a letter to a P&C.
In the future, we may consider recommending a criminal prosecution under work health and safety laws against the Department of Education (for failing to observe its duty to provide a safe place of work).
While these “solutions" are often imperfect, they at least give members a chance to finally take action to defend themselves.