Case study: the trap of litigious parents

24th October 2003 at 01:00
I was working at my desk one morning when the phone rang. It had been a particularly busy morning, with the head away on inspection, and I was struggling to combine the daily routine of my job as deputy alongside the equally demanding schedule the head's secretary had set up for the day. In fact, it was the head's secretary on the phone.

"Could you see Mrs Stanley for a few minutes? She's very upset and needs to talk to you urgently."

"Of course." But what seemed, at the time, a simple on-the-spot decision to see a parent for a few minutes eventually led to a distressing story that unfolded for the school, my colleagues and myself.

Mrs Stanley broke down when she came into my office. I knew her relatively well as the mother of two of our pupils, Carol, aged 14, and Nikki, 17. She quickly off-loaded her marital troubles on to me: how her husband had subjected her and her daughters to regular verbal abuse; how they all knew he was having an affair; and how her daughters' safety was at risk. Her marriage was on the rocks, her husband was "a cheating bastard" and she would be seeking a divorce, custody of the children and possession of the family home.

But all of that was in the future. She was desperate: could I help her? Could I take the girls into our boarding house on a temporary basis (she had already contacted the housemistress to check we had places available)? She even quoted from our recent inspection report, which highlighted that we were "a caring school where the house staff showed exceptional pastoral qualities".

My immediate reaction was to say yes, I could help. She was right; we were a caring school and the girls' situation sounded horrendous. And this is the dilemma teachers often face: we are caught between being practitioners who genuinely care for our pupils and wanting to do the best for them, and their parents' self-indulgent and selfish behaviour. I ended our meeting with something along the lines of: "Leave it with me and I'll try to fix it for you."

With the bursar's permission, we accepted Carol and Nikki into our boarding house, initially temporarily. Mrs Stanley assured me that the fees would not be an issue. We agreed to review the situation after a week or when the head returned. I felt I had acted honourably, sensitively and professionally.

But what followed was probably the worst three months of my professional life. Two days after we accepted the girls into boarding, Mr Stanley, who had always maintained a relatively low profile in terms of the girls'

education, turned up for an unsolicited meeting with the girls'

housemistress and demanded we withdraw them from boarding immediately. He called his wife a "liar" and a "bitch" at the top of his voice in the housemistress's flat, well within earshot of other boarders. He also demanded to see me; it was now 10.30pm. I agreed, but only if another teacher was present. The meeting lasted about an hour, during which he verbally abused me and my colleague with a torrent of expletives. He also called me naive in not recognising that his wife was scheming and manipulative. He revealed, too, that it was his parents who paid the girls'

school fees; not only would they not be paying the additional boarding fees but he had instructed them to cancel all fee arrangements. He left my office at 11.30pm with a parting line that suggested my caring attitude had made the matter worse between himself and his daughters and he would be writing to the chairman of governors to complain about my unprofessional behaviour.

The personal stress and anxiety caused by this not unexceptional case really struck me at the time, and for some years afterwards. Mr Stanley's parents eventually acquiesced and, after several months of bursar's and headteacher's letters, paid the fees. Carol and Nikki completed their education with us, although Carol was unable to stay on to the sixth form.

Mrs Stanley tried to cite my swift decision to accept the girls into boarding as evidence that they had been at risk from her husband. Our school solicitor counselled us not to appear as witnesses in the marital break-up. The Stanleys did finally divorce after months of arguing - they even asked to use a room at school for a family case conference, a request we turned down - but not before their family home had been literally partitioned, with Mr Stanley living on one side and Mrs Stanley on the other. My governors and the head were wonderfully supportive of my decision, although the temporary non-payment of fees and a possible custody case gave me sleepless nights.

Nikki and Carol are now relatively happy at university and I don't know what has happened to the warring Mr and Mrs Stanley. In retrospect, I'm not sure I would have done much differently but I believe all of us involved with the care of children must continue to find that vital balance between providing pastoral care for our pupils without falling into the trap of litigious parents, who are quick to transfer their matrimonial difficulties on to our schools.

All names have been changed.The author was a deputy head in a co-educational independent school in Sussex. He wishes to remain anonymous

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