What To Do With Aggressive Parents and Others?

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Sometimes it feels like everyone's a critic. Whether there's an aggressive parent or an internal personnel issue, an administrator's job carries a unique set of challenges. But when the problem becomes especially personal, you may ask, "Do I really have to put up with this?" That's a fair question. If a parent spreads a lie about you on social media, isn't that defamation? If the parent angrily confronts you in person and badgers you, can you get a restraining order or issue a "no trespass" letter, prohibiting them from school grounds? When a school district employee makes you tear your hair out, isn't that a hostile work environment? These questions create an interesting stew of legal questions, which are slightly more complicated to answer than you might think.

Let's start with the big one – defamation. If a person makes a false and defamatory statement about you to a third party either in writing (libel) or by saying it out loud (slander), then you might have a defamation case, as long as you can also show a couple of additional things. At least one federal court has found that Michigan principals are public figures, so you'll need to show the defamer acted with "actual malice," meaning the defamer knew the statement was false or didn't care about whether it was false when it was made. And, except in very specific cases, you'll also have to prove that the statement caused you "special harm." That means you have to show that the defamatory statement caused injury to your reputation, mental suffering, embarrassment, or humiliation. Those things are harder to prove, definitively, than just claiming a damaged reputation or embarrassment. Even if you prove all these elements, you might still lose a defamation case. In addition to the truth being a complete defense, a statement that is just an opinion, rather than a factual allegation, can't be attacked in court.

Additionally, a defamation lawsuit can be a costly and time consuming option. It may be faster and more effective to have your school district issue a difficult parent a "no trespass" letter or even a letter that requires the parent to communicate with only one specific individual at the district. If those options fail, more firepower may be required. It doesn't hurt to ask your school district to send a legal cease and desist letter – perhaps through district legal counsel - or even request a personal protection order (PPO) from a local court. Of course, there's no guarantee that a court will grant the PPO, but that route is especially useful for a parent who threatens violence.

What about if the unpleasant behavior is internal rather than from a parent? A "hostile work environment" is a specific legal term. It means you're being harassed – discriminated against – by a co-worker or supervisor because of your race, religion, sex, gender, age, ethnicity, disability or other protected class, and the harassment is severe enough to hamper your ability to perform your job. While these types of claims can be difficult to prove in court, your first stop should be your district. Most districts have specific policies pertaining to harassment in the workplace. These policies contain procedures for where and with whom to file complaints. If your ability to perform your job is being hindered by a co-worker, you should report those concerns to your district, consistent with policy.

So, back to the main question: what do you do to stop this stuff? If the issue occurs on school grounds, you should first check to see if the district administration will step in to limit interactions between you and the problematic individual. Additionally, if you think the conduct is criminal, you can file a police report. If you believe defamatory statements have been made about you, the best course of action is to either contact the district's legal counsel, if available, or retain a personal attorney (while MASSP specializes in defending principals against litigation, district counsel or a personal attorney are better situated to initiate any necessary legal action). If those avenues don't bear any fruit, there is, unfortunately, little else that can be done legally. The good news is that you still have an ace up your sleeve – you. These situations are no different than the other times you've had to remain professional in the face of adversity. Whether it's defusing a situation or taking a firm stance, you've ultimately made a career out of weathering these storms. Ultimately, legal avenues are no match for that tenacity.

This month's LegalEASE column is on a topic that MASSP receives many phone calls about: Administrators who feel personally attacked and/or unsupported. It is a very challenging situation and not one that any of us signed up for when the accepting the position as a building leader. Unfortunately these situations are becoming increasingly common and often compounded by the influence of social media. Attorney Kevin Sutton does a good job of explaining the legal definitions and terms, as well as the recourse that administrators have in given situations.

You likely know that MASSP provides access to legal services as part of our professional and executive memberships. It is important to note, though, that MASSP does not initiate litigation on behalf of a member, we are here to help defend you against litigation. For example, MASSP's attorney will not file a liable or slander lawsuit on your behalf. As Kevin Sutton's article above explains, it is the responsibility of the district to protect employees from harassment. Here are some of the most common examples of how MASSP's legal services are accessed by members:

  • Administrator contract reviews and advice during negotiations
  • Review of administrator contract violations by the district and advice
  • Review of administrator discipline by the district and advice

In many large school districts, administrator contracts are negotiated for the entire group of K-12 Principals. (NOTE: If your group would like the contract reviewed, MASSP will want a list of the secondary Principals in the district and will check to see if they are members. If they are, we will refer the contract for review. It is important to note that the elementary principals association also provides this legal service to their members. If the lead negotiator for the admin group is an elementary principal it is appropriate to ask them to seek the legal service.)

At times members will call and want to speak to the attorney about a situation that might happen. MASSP doesn't get involved in the initial steps of progressive discipline. Once there is something concrete to act on that an attorney can review and advise on a member will be referred.

That being said, the MASSP staff is always here to listen and support you in difficult situations. Being a building administrator can certainly be a lonely place and there are times you may just need to speak to someone with experience who you can trust. As the Executive Director of the Association for the past six years, there are not many situations I have not heard or encountered! You also have access to our Associate Executive Director, Colin Ripmaster, who is a wealth of information. Your phone calls will always be kept confidential and we will do our best to give you solid colleague to colleague advice.