Conduct likely to cause offence

Should pupils be excluded if their parents threaten staff? Curbs on such aggression already exist, says Chris Lowe

A SHEFFIELD mother of three was sent to prison in July for assaulting a pregnant teacher. In the same month, a father who assaulted his son's headteacher was given 180 hours of community service, and another man was jailed for attacking a head during an argument over his child's exclusion.

Violent attacks on school staff are a growing problem, which has prompted the president of the National Association of Head Teachers to call for children to be excluded if their parents have been aggressive to teachers.

However, a number of important powers already exist to curb aggressive parents. Any person present on school premises without lawful authority who causes nuisance or disturbance to teachers or others commits an offence under the Education Act 1996.

Parents are normally entitled to be in school, but they commit an offence if they use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or behave in a disorderly manner, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to feel harassed, alarmed or distressed. This might be people in the vicinity as well as the threatened teacher.

If troublesome parents do not stop this behaviour when warned, they can be arrested under the Public Order Act 1986. If the conduct escalates so that school staff fear that actual violence might be used against them, it could amount to an offence under protection from harassment legislation.

The offence of putting people in fear of violence occurs if the harassment causes someone to fear on at least two occasions that violence will be used, so long as the harasser is aware that the conduct could cause such fear. The test is whether a "reasonable person in possession of the same information would know this".

The Act also creates a civil, as well as criminal, offence of harassment, allowing a victim to seek an order restraining the harasser without having to wait for police intervention. This is not very useful if a parent bursts unannounced into a classroom, but it is a helpful course of action when further attacks are suspected.

If the parent is carrying an offensive weapon without lawful authority, or any sharp pointed article other than a small pocket knife, they could still be arrested, even if they do not threaten anyone. The police have the power to enter school premises to search for an offensive weapon even if it has not yet been brandished.

The Department for Education and Skills has published guidance on how to discourage trespassing. Schools should take heed of this advice, and have policies and procedures in place for dealing with trespassers and troublemakers, which all staff should be familiar with. Perhaps parents should know, too.

Refer to: Education Act 1996; Public Order Act 1986; The Offensive Weapons Act 1996; The Protection from Harassment Act 1997; School Security: Dealing with Troublemakers, DFEE and Home Office 1997. General information about school security can be found on the DFES website: DFES documents can be ordered on 0845 6022260.

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