Mad mums and and dangerous dads

10th November 2000 at 00:00
Violent and abusive parents are a growing occupational hazard for teachers, and at last the courts are taking a firmer line. But will the recent jailing of one slap-happy mother make any difference? Wendy Wallace and Fay Wertheimer report She came straight at me and started throwing punches. I said to myself, 'Charles, remember you're a headteacher. Be professional and stay cool.' I kept my hands by my side and took the punches. I didn't react." The fact that he didn't hit anybody in the violent tumult at Willingsworth high school in Tipton, West Midlands, in April gives 62-year-old Charles King some satisfaction. But the four-month jail sentence meted out last month to Tina Smith, mother of two pupils at the school, for the attack on him and four others, gives him no pleasure. "It's sad," he says. "You don't want to see anybody in prison, or the kids without their mother." Charles King agreed to come out of retirement at the start of this year to head the 1,000-pupil comprehensive (in special measures for the past three years), while Sandwell LEA found a permanent candidate. A difficult situation with the Smith family - over the behaviour of one of their children - was ongoing when he arrived. Before Christmas there had been "verbals", he says, with the Smiths using some "nasty Anglo-Saxon". But with more than 20 years' experience as head of three urban comprehensives, Charles King was no stranger to angry parents. "Usually you can placate people, they calm down and they will listen to logic," he says. "This person does not accept logic." The attack in April involved both the Smith parents (Wayne Smith, 33, escaped a jail term after pleading guilty to assault) and followed an earlier incident in February, when deputy head Anne Hollings had her hair pulled and was slapped. Mrs Smith was on bail awaiting trial for the first offence when the second occurred, and had agreed not to enter the school premises without prior arrangement. The school had been advised that it had no grounds for an injunction against her. Charles King, although not rancorous, welcomes the message sent out by the court case. "It is important that the populace at large realises the courts are not going to accept this kind of action against teachers," he says. Regional judge Michael James, in sentencing 31-year-old Tina Smith, said: "Schoolteachers are regularly faced with angry, unreasonable and violent children and parents. They are entitled to expect and receive the protection of the courts." Few do, though. While "parent rage" may be joining road rage and air rage as another unwelcome modern phenomenon, prosecutions - and punches - remain the exception, despite advice earlier this year from the Director of Public Prosecutions, who asked crown prosecutors to take a firmer line on defending teachers' rights. More prevalent is the kind of unpleasant experience faced by 26-year-old Louise Griffiths (not her real name), a recently qualified teacher in an inner-city primary school, at her last parents' evening. She had written a positive report about a child whose parents were going through the statementing process for him. The mother was outraged. "She was waving the report in the air, saying she wasn't having it. They were the last appointment and I got a bit flustered; I'd been dreading seeing them anyway. Then she shouted in my face that I'd better not see her on a dark night because I'd have had it. After they'd gone, it was awful. I couldn't stop crying for an hour. You've done a day at school, seen 31 parents, then to get a load of abuse makes you question yourself. You think, have I assessed him correctly? But I reread the report and I had." The risk is often more to teachers' mental health than their physical well-being. Charles King is adamant that the "very, very difficult" Smith family did not affect his equilibrium over the two terms he spent in the school. "I do not lose sleep over things," he says. "If you do, they've won the day. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge at Willingsworth and working with staff there. I would not let this incident blight that." But in a survey carried out by the National Association of Head Teachers in March, heads cited parental hostility as the fourth most stressful factor of 22 listed. Gareth James, head of professional advice at the union, fields increasing numbers of requests for advice on dealing with hostile parents. "There's certainly an increase in the number of low-grade confrontations - the abusive parent as opposed to the violently assaulting parent," he says. "A child is reprimanded, the parent comes in refusing to accept the child was at fault, and gets angry and abusive, then becomes intimidating, standing up close, shouting. That escalates to pushing, pulling hair, swiping things off the desk maybe, storming out." Teachers often have a delayed reaction, he says. "They relax and go home, then it begins to hit them. It's like being in a near accident when you're driving, then later you can't sleep and it's on your mind. If that happens on a regular basis, it has a cumulative effect." Teacherline, a 24-hour helpline run by the Teachers' Support Network, takes more than 1,000 calls a month. It estimates that one in every nine teachers - 58,000 people - has experienced verbal or physical aggression from parents over the past two years. (Its latest research found that 7 per cent of callers were feeling suicidal, homicidal or experiencing major depression, with parent aggression the trigger for many.) Figures from Scotland indicate that the number of attacks by pupils and parents is up, with 840 assaults recorded last year. Steve Palin, head of the 300-pupil Millbrook primary school in Kirkby, Merseyside, describes parent rage as a regular - if infrequent - feature of his 10-year headship. "It's usually aggressive men who want to assert their macho way of dealing with things," he says. "But the articulate, middle-England parent can be just as aggressive, for different reasons." His most recent incident came last month, when, after challenging a woman for letting her dog run free on the school field, he received a hostile response from her followed by an abusive telephone call from her partner. "I was able to pacify him. I explained to him that I couldn't win. If I didn't challenge people, other parents would want to know why their child was coming home covered with dog shit. I explained that his wife had been extremely aggressive, and somehow that rang true with him." Steve Palin, who describes "interpersonal skills" as one of his interests, recognises the stress caused by hostile exchanges, even when no blows are struck. "You go away with your heart beating a bit faster, in need of a cup of tea," he says. "That can build up over time without you recognising it." He believes the stress is worse for class teachers than for heads. "As a class teacher, you're between a number of rocks and hard places," he says. "The headteacher, the Government, pupils and the parents. Everybody has the potential to be against you." Technology is contributing to flare-ups in school as pupils phone home on their mobiles with a hot account of injustices, and aggrieved parents rush in, says Angela Sanders, senior teacher at Plumstead Manor girls' school in Woolwich, south-east London. "A volatile student, in trouble, will call her parent at break or lunchtime and the next minute a distressed parent wants to come and see me, instantly," she says. "Before, things could be talked over 24 hours later in the cool light of day. This is causing immense problems." Teachers blame not only increasing aggression in society for the rise in threatening behaviour in school, but also the climate created by the last government and maintained by this one in which parents are encouraged to see themselves as demanding consumers of the education service. "Parents have become more educated about what to expect from schools," says Angela Saunders. "What some of them lack is the skills to deal with a situation where perhaps their expectations aren't being met. Targets have put parents more on the attack and teachers more on the defensive, and society expects you to deliver everything." Many schools have had training of one sort or another in conflict management. Geoff Ashton, head of Standish community high school in Lancashire, sent four staff members on a four-day course in Nottingham run by the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI), a company set up in the United States in 1980. They, in turn, trained colleagues in body language and ways of anticipating and defusing aggression. "Staff now have the skills to recognise the body language of people who are angry, and can counteract this with their own body language to try to neutralise the implied aggression," says Mr Ashton. In a survey carried out by CPI in the US and Canada, 80 per cent of participants report a fall in the number of assaults, and 98 per cent describe improved morale as a result of the course. No crisis management training or security system could have protected Charles King at Willingsworth. The Smith child had refused to leave a science lab; a senior teacher had been called, then the head himself, to no avail. The boy refused to move. The end of the class - and the school day - came, and only then did the child gather up his belongings and leave. As Mr King and colleagues stood in the lab discussing the situation they heard a commotion outside. On leaving the lab, the head saw that glass in a door had been broken. As he absorbed this, and told children gathered outside to go home, Mrs Smith appeared from the car park, fists flailing. "It's all right for the local authority to offer training on explosive situations, but I don't see how it could have been avoided," says Mr King. "And no matter how many security cameras and big fences you have, there's always got to be a gate. A parent who's that determined will always find a way to get in." Some schools believe they have reduced the potential for parental fury by introducing formalised complaints systems and improving opportunities for communication. Parrs Wood high school in Manchester operates "no appointment necessary" contact slots for parents of Year 6 entrants. "I speak to every parent. We give everyone the name of a senior member of staff to contact with concerns, even before their child is in school," says headteacher Iain Hall. "We'd rather parents call than let the temperature rise." Schooling in skills to make parents feel heard may pre-empt many violent incidents; but it cannot necessarily prevent difficulties with parents who may be psychotic, stoned, drunk or chronically enraged. Still, Gareth James of the NAHT says incidents rarely come out of nowhere. He advises heads that where interviews with parents are expected to be tricky, they should try to conduct them in an open area, with other adults nearby to act as witnesses or protection, and ready escape routes or access to a telephone. Most often, it is the parents of children who resort to violence who are least well equipped to stay cool in school. Despite hostility, teachers tend to offer what Millbrook head Steve Palin calls "an attempted compassionate response", even to angry and abusive parents. Sue Seifert, head of Montem primary school in the London borough of Islington, is blunt: "It's about who's got the social skills and who hasn't. The major problem is that parents see only their child. But we have to see all the children. When you get to the bottom of what they're angry about, often you don't blame them." For information on courses run by the Crisis Prevention Institute, tel: 0161 929 9777. Teacherline: 0800 0562 561 ASSAULT: WHAT YOU SHOULD DO * Record the assault in the accident book or through appropriate employer documentation * Contact the Department of Social Security and fill in form BI95 to register any injuries sustained. This is the first step towards making a claim for state industrial injury disablement benefit should you not make a full recovery * Make sure your employer reports the incident to the police (if management is unwilling to do so, you should do so yourself). This opens the way for prosecution and enables you to apply to the Criminal Injury Compensation Authority for an award, if applicable * Make sure your employer writes to the assailant threatening prosecution in the event of any repetition andor preventing access to the school in future * Contact your union to consider a potential claim for negligence Source: the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers

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