I Can’t Hear You When You Shout

Dealing with parents who go too far in communications with school staff.

Topics: Family and Stakeholder Engagement, School Management

By Mark Paige

School principals know that communication is central to success. And as a building leader, you have back-and-forth conversations with multiple constituencies: teachers and staff, students, the central office, community groups, and of course, parents. Most of these interactions, emails, and conversations stay professional, constructive, and civil in tone, even when there are differences of opinion.

But sometimes things can get contentious or volatile. Sometimes, parents go too far. They might send multiple, repetitive emails, relitigate old issues, and even harass and intimidate teachers. As a school principal, how can you handle these more extreme situations? What can you do to lower the risk that things will spiral out of control?

Making a Plan

Let’s look at what one school district and its leaders did through a court case, L.F. v. Lake Washington School District No. 414, 947 F.3d 621 (9th Cir., Jan. 17, 2020). I call attention to the case not to suggest that this is the first or best option. But it should remind us that we can prevent such occurrences, and it represents at least one course of action potentially available to principals in extreme situations.

In L.F. v. Lake Washington, the school district developed a communication plan for a parent (L.F.), who officials believed had engaged in a pattern of sending incessant and insulting emails to staff and acting in a hostile and intimidating manner in face-to-face interactions. Under the plan, substantive communication about the education of L.F.’s two daughters was limited to biweekly, in-person meetings with school leaders. They advised L.F. to refrain from communicating with staff, saying that they would not respond outside the terms of the plan, with the exception of an emergency situation. The plan did not prevent L.F. from attending typical parent activities on campus. Building principals communicated this plan to their staff.

L.F. argued that the plan violated his First Amendment rights, which prohibit government actors (e.g., school officials) from abridging his freedom of speech and right to redress grievances. The court dismissed L.F.’s case, agreeing with the district’s position. Central to the decision in favor of the school district was the fact that the plan did not burden L.F.’s speech, but instead limited communications to which the district would respond (e.g., they would not respond to his emails or attempts to communicate outside the terms of the plan).

In other words, the court ruled, there was no restriction on L.F.’s speech. L.F. could, in theory, send as many emails as he had before, but the district would not respond except according to the plan. Moreover, the court said, even assuming that the plan could be considered a restriction on L.F.’s speech, the restriction was reasonable and did not represent an effort to suppress his viewpoint.

A Last Resort

This case is an outlier, but it has lessons for principals. First, developing a communication plan like Lake Washington’s is probably last—or near last—on the list of potential actions you could take. Here, the plan was a reasonable effort to manage a parent’s “relentless and unproductive” communications. The plan did not restrict or attempt to restrict any of L.F.’s rights as a parent that might arise under laws governing special education or the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Second, there are techniques to defuse a potential “situation” from snowballing into something more, and you have probably employed some of them. To that I will add only that based on my experience as a parent and professional, parents want to be heard. Listening, asking questions, and offering a calm response can go a long way toward keeping parents happy.

Third, if preventive ideas do not defuse the situation, school officials might be able to implement an informal communication plan. For example, say you receive a flurry of emails from an angry parent. You are under no obligation to respond to each one—or any, other than those that might require a response under the law. But you might seek to defuse the situation by responding—in a single email, perhaps after some time has passed—that you would like to schedule a meeting to discuss the issues in person.

Finally—and it almost goes without saying—a parent’s right to communicate with school officials doesn’t excuse behavior that’s intimidating to staff or students. Your first priority is to keep students and staff safe; learning can’t occur when people don’t feel secure. In L.F. v. Lake Washington, communications had crossed a line, creating a hostile, intimidating environment.

Hopefully, you’ll never have to face such behavior. But if you do, remember that you and your staff deserve respect and professional treatment. In L.F., the school district had a culture that promoted and stood by those values when tested. I hope yours does, too.

Mark Paige is associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and a board member of the Education Law Association.