The issue - Slander

15th October 2010 at 01:00
When a disgruntled parent goes too far with a complaint and makes a potentially slanderous comment about you, it pays to know your rights

A run-in with parents is something most teachers experience from time to time - angry words at the school gate or a frank exchange at parents' evening. But what if it goes further than that?

At St Alban's Primary School in Cardiff, two parents were threatened with legal action for making what heads' union the NAHT alleged were "false and slanderous statements about the headteacher". And it is not hard to find other examples of disgruntled parents trying to undermine a teacher's reputation.

One poster on the TES forums recalls how a parent sent out more than 60 letters detailing why they thought she was incompetent.

There have also been several cases of parents waging online campaigns against teachers through Facebook or even dedicated websites. And face-to-face confrontation is far from being a thing of the past - one secondary teacher recently called the Teacher Support Network (TSN) after a parent visited the school repeatedly to complain about him and then burst in on his class to abuse him in person.

"There are boundaries that should not be crossed," says Julian Stanley, chief executive of the TSN.

"If a teacher feels intimidated or threatened, then it's clear that things have gone too far. Problems usually arise when parents feel they have no outlet for their frustrations, so it is vital that schools have a clear policy, and teachers and parents know the procedure for airing grievances."

But that is not always enough. Some parents refuse to play by the rules and if mediation and negotiation do not work you may need a different approach. Schools can ban a parent from the premises simply by sending a letter explaining their reasons. But if someone is spreading malicious gossip there may be a case for legal action.

"A parent could be liable for defamation if they make untrue statements in public that are damaging to a teacher's reputation," says Mark Blois, an education specialist at legal firm Browne Jacobson. He also points out that if malicious comments are repeated and cause distress, this could amount to harassment. "But either way," he warns, "the time and cost involved in bringing a case to court is considerable."

Sion Humphreys, assistant secretary of the NAHT, insists he has no qualms about getting the lawyers involved in cases like the recent dispute at St Alban's Primary School.

"If a professional reputation is being unfairly damaged you have to act quickly because rumours and ill-informed criticism can soon get out hand. Parents need to use the proper channels. They need to know that they can't just vent their spleen and say whatever they like."

In many cases, merely making parents aware of the legal implications is enough to put a stop to over-the-top outbursts. Once the situation has calmed down, it is often possible to go back to common-sense discussion and settle problems that way.

"Bringing difficult parents on board is a skill that has to be learnt," says Julian Stanley. "The key is on-going communication and contact between teachers and parents when things are going well, not just when there is a problem."

WHAT TO DO

- Ensure all parents are aware of correct grievance and complaints procedures.

- If you feel you are being defamed or harassed then consult your union.

- Contact the police if you feel threatened.

- Try not to let ill-feelings towards a parent affect your relationship with their child.

Teacher Support Network: http:teachersupport.info

Browne Jacobson: www.brownejacobson.com.

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