Growing Concern for School Principals Subjected to Social Media AbusePosted in : Cassidy's Comments on 15 February 2019
The Belfast Telegraph and BBC have reported on Geri Cameron, principal at Loughshore Education Centre in Newtownabbey and President of NAHT Northern Ireland, telling MPs at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that head teachers were being offered no support in dealing with online abuse. Ms Cameron added that a teacher health and well-being strategy was urgently needed.
"I can't imagine any other situation where a school principal could be hounded and stalked and vilified on social media and held up for public ridicule with no consequence," she said.
"As a trade union, NAHT are inundated with principals who are suffering at the hands of all sorts of individuals with very strange motives, but nevertheless they are there. No other profession would sustain it or tolerate it."
Threatening and Defamatory Comments by Parents on Social Media
In February 2018 I wrote about an alarming case in Northern Ireland where a principal was threatened by a parent. This example had indeed elements of social media abuse. In the ensuing court case it emerged that in addition to face to face threatening behaviour, the parent had posted photographs he took of the principal outside the school on Facebook along with screenshots of her correspondence, alleging she had lied to police and discriminated against special needs children.
The judge said the parent’s Facebook entries showed he was "irrational to the point of paranoia", and added that, "I'm always bemused at the amount of people exposing themselves, as it were, on Facebook."
The parent was sentenced to a four-month jail term, suspended for three years. There is some reassurance that the courts will support principals in such circumstances but the knee jerk response by some parents to problems in school on social media can potentially do irreparable damage to a school and a principal’s reputation and cause dangerous levels of stress and anxiety which are beyond legal remedy.
Writing in the Times Educational Supplement in September 2016, Claire Lotriet highlights a rising level of personal attacks, threats to call Ofsted and false accusations against teachers and principals posted online by the parents of students.
She found that these instances are not rare having conducted a poll on Twitter in which she asked followers if parents had ever put defamatory comments about them or their colleagues on social media; 54 per cent answered “yes”.
The biggest frustration among many principals and teachers was that they felt like they had no real right to reply and that nothing could be done. However she also found that In several of the cases reported, the head teacher called the parents involved and confronted them directly about the issues and requested that the comments be removed which proved to be an effective tactic, with few issues occurring afterwards.
Social Media Use Policies and Social Media-related Clauses in Parental Codes of Conduct
The obvious advice is to get screenshots of the evidence and document what has happened, but longer term to have an acceptable social media use policy with a section on appropriate styles of communication by parents.
As I wrote in my article about inappropriate parental behaviour towards teachers last year, schools would be well advised to put social media-related clauses into parental codes of conduct. Importantly, these documents should come from the governing body and not just the senior leadership team, which will send out a crucial message of solidarity. Maybe, by highlighting the issue in advance, parents will think twice before sharing concerns online.
In Scotland, a poll of more than 1,000 Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association (SSTA) members, which contained questions provided by Tes Scotland, showed that one in seven had suffered negative experiences on social media involving parents, while more than a third were not aware of any social media policy in their school.
The AHDS school leaders’ body said abuse on social media was “an area of growing concern” because online platforms allowed “uninformed and abusive voices considerable reach”.
Reputation of Schools
The issue of schools reputations being compromised by social media criticism was also raised at the ASCL Annual Conference in March 2018. Asked by reporters if schools need to teach parents about how to use social media and report complaints, ASCL General Secretary Geoff Barton replied that many of them already are and that we are seeing examples of schools defining standards at the beginning of a parent’s relationship with them. He pointed out that this is uncharted territory in education but that schools need to be proactive and engage with parents on the issue.
"So when a child moves into the school, traditionally there’s always been a home school agreement of some kind, so the parent signs a contract saying what they’ll do, the school says here’s what we’ll do, and part of that has always been ‘here’s how we’ll communicate with each other’."
"I think what a lot of schools are doing, is actually trying to set expectations of how each of the parties will use social media, and I think we’re at a very early stage of that, but I think we’ll see more of that without a doubt."
So the way forward seems to be firstly an acceptance that this new reality of social media use by parents and society in general is with us to stay. As with President Trump and Twitter use, parents have found a way of getting their views to a wider audience without the previous filter and editorial control of the press. Schools are entitled, however, to intervene if pupils use social media inappropriately to criticise staff or other children and by extension to ask parents to remove posts if they get involved in such activity on their children’s behalf.
Defamatory commentary on social media about staff or the school, in general, has to be dealt with in the same way as written or direct exchanges were before, ultimately through the courts if necessary, as the example above demonstrates. What is different now though is that once things are posted and widely read, the damage is done and even if removed later the effect can be lasting.
As pointed out by Geri Cameron at the Commons Select Committee hearing, it is head teachers who are bearing the brunt of this problem. They should be supported by the Government and the statutory agencies through publically declared statements on standards and norms of conduct regarding social media use for parents in their dealings with schools.
Note: Legal Island is running a Northern Ireland Education Law Update 2019 conference on Thursday 21st March (9:20am -2:00pm). Sessions cover for difficult topics that many school leaders face - Grievances and actions to frustrate the process; Stress, Grievances and Alternatives; Alcohol problems; and Parental complaints.
If you found this article useful and you would like to recieve more education articles via email (two per month), please subscribe below:
The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.