For Teachers And Principals: Handling NON-VIOLENT Threats From Parents

The tips on handling non-violent threats made to teachers and school staff are based on, and summarize information from Building Bridges Between Home And School: The Educator's/Teacher's Guide To Dealing With Emotional And Upset Parents

School staff are often on the receiving end of threat from parents and community members. There are two kinds of common threats that need to be handled differently. First there are threats of violence towards the school staff, or students. Threats of violence, depending on your jurisdiction, can be illegal, and since you can never know which ones are serious and which ones are simply meant to intimidate, all threats of violence need to be reported to the proper authorities in your school.

Fortunately, most non-violent threats made by parents, although still upsetting, do not result in the parent actually doing what is threatened. The less you react emotionally, the less likely they will follow through.

The second kind of threat is different. These are verbal threats from a parent that are meant to intimidate you, for the purpose of the parent getting his or her way. For example:

"I'll have you job"

"You'll never get another teaching job in this state when I get finished with you"

"Do you know who I am" (this is an implied threat)

"I'm going to the press and expose your incompetence"

"I'm friends with all the school trustees" (another implied threat)

"If you don't [do what I want], I'm taking this to the top [or principal, superintendent...] (this one may not be meant to intimdate. It depends on tone.

Threats of this type are intended to put you off balance, pressure you into giving in, or make you feel emotionally uncomfortable.

Handling These Threats Effectively

It's understandable to have an emotional reaction to these kinds of "attacks", since they are often manipulative, unfair, and, if you have had a long day, it's easy to get sucked into fighting back and escalating the discussion. By doing that, by taking the "bait", you ARE allowing the "attacker" to control the interaction, and actually reinforce the bad behavior.

Here are some suggestions to handle these situation.

1. Most times, these threats are empty. It takes work, time and effort for parents to follow-through and actually try to get you fired, or "expose" you in the press. Since the motivating factor is to pressure you, and most people simply aren't going to follow through, keep in mind that it's unlikely there will be true attempts to damage you. It happens, yes. But not as often as you'd think. Keep that in mind, before responding.

2. If you don't fight the threat by arguing or trying to disuade the person, it takes the reward from the equation (if you don't react negatively, eventually it occurs to the attacking person they are wasting their time). In fact, if you are faced with a threat to "have you fired", one of the best responses to make is:

"You are certainly welcome to register your complaint with others"

By doing that, you are, in essence, saying: "That's fine with me".

3. When the threats reference going "upstairs", let's say to a superintendent, or to the school board trustees, offer some help to do that. That may sound strange, but in effect, you are calling the bluff of the parent. When you offer no resistance, or do not become emotional, once again, you send the message "This is not going to work with me". You don't SAY that, of course, but that's the meta-message. So for example:

Parent: I'm going straight to the school board trustees to expose how little you care about my child.

Teacher: You have that option. Would you like the schedule for the board meetings you can attend?

When you go "with" the threat, and actually offer to help, it shows confidence, and it's actually the best way to ensure the abuse stops, and the person won't bother to take things further.

Separating Empty Threats From Legitimate Commitment To Take Action

Regardless of the threat, the tips above will be effective, but it's good to know the difference between threats that are made simply to get to you and pressure you, and promises of action the parent will take. Empty threats (remember we are talking non-violent threats) have a certain tone of voice attached to them. They sound threatening, but also often sound a bit whiny, and are loaded with emotional content. Most of those are just empty.

Legitimate commitments to take action -- for example, to go to the school board, from people who really intend to do just that, will have a more matter of fact feel to them. They feel and sound like the parent is providing you with information about what he or she will do next, and the options s/he may use.

Since these actions are things the parent can do, and is usually legally entitled to, you don't have many alternatives to stop them from doing these things. So, don't over-react, and don't try to dissuade the person. The more you try to convince the person not to do something, the more they will believe they SHOULD do that very thing.