There was once a time when the word of a teacher was final. If you were unlucky enough to find yourself in trouble for breaking a rule or two it wasn’t only the school’s punishment you had to worry about but also that of your parents.
The hardworking parents of yesterday trusted their child’s school to get the job done. Education was important and any kids jeopardising theirs found themselves in a mess of hot water once they got home.
Somewhere along the way, however, the focus has shifted from our individual responsibilities and social conscience to our entitlements and rights. Most teachers have suffered the backlash of pushy parents when it comes to disciplines handed out to their child, poor grades and poorer behaviour. Increasingly, teachers and schools are being forced to explain themselves, retract punishments, re-evaluate grades and allow students free reign. It’s not hard to raise the ire of parents who feel their child should have special treatment but what is hard is pleasing everybody all the time.
This no-win situation has become worse in recent years as problem parents have become increasingly litigious, taking their complaints to the courts. Whether solicitors and lawyers are brought into the mix as a way to threaten a school into action or these parents believe their complaints are really that serious, the result is always the same: the school, the children and even the parents end up suffering.
In the last few years, there have been a number of cases from around the world that have made headlines along with the growth of this worrying trend.
- The family of a girl hit with a tennis ball suing the family of the girl who lobbed it, as well as the tennis school and college where it occurred;
- Parents of boys banned from a rowing competition after breaking the law at an airport having the decision overturned in court;
- A New Zealand court backing a schoolboy who refused to abide by his school’s haircut standards;
- A UK school sued for expelling a student who sold cannabis to other students, calling the decision “unreasonable, unjustified and disproportionate”;
- Field trips at an Israeli school being banned out of fear of lawsuits from parents in the event of an accident; and
- Pushy parents harassing their children’s school and eventually suing them when they were asked to enroll elsewhere.
In the UK, the threat of litigious parents has caused some private schools to start interviewing and vetting parents of new students, filtering out those who don’t understand the school’s ‘core values’. School governors have even been told to insure as protection against parents.
In response to these reports, David Smellie, head of the schools group at law firm Farrer & Co, has pointed out how common the problem has become:
“Twenty years ago, a head could quite safely expel a pupil with no realistic expectation of an appeal, or a solicitor’s letter. Now, at the very least, for every 10 pupils you expel, you will probably get at least one solicitor’s letter and two or three appeals.”
Not all parents are problematic, just as not all problem parents are litigious. However, as teachers find themselves wearing more and more hats in the classroom – educator, social worker, counsellor, etc. – the more responsibilities they shoulder, leaving themselves open for harsher criticism. Teachers do need to be held accountable but so do parents.
Schools stand as a place for instilling not only education into the minds of the young but also behavioural standards. Children learn from examples set by both teachers and parents – the interactions between the two are paramount. As two parents have to present a united front so should parents and schools.
There are many ways to deal with litigious parents but, if we can all work together to prevent our relationships breaking down and reaching that point in the first place, we can save a lot of heartache and even a little bit of money.