By Kevin Lungwitz

There is an ascendant parent movement in public education. Some parents seek to hold educators responsible for what was once considered “doing one’s job.” Librarians are castigated for the books in the library, teachers are criticized for discussing social issues, and principals are responsible for all of it.  Gone are the days when an angry stakeholder would write a letter to the editor, who might fact-check it before publication. Today, an angry parent controls the means of publication via social media.

There is no debate that parents should be engaged in their children’s education. Parents have a right to complain, there are official avenues for doing so, and it should be done civilly. But what can you do if you are on the receiving end of criticism that is beyond the pale?

Move to eject an abusive parent from school property. Parents do not have a right to be abusive or threatening. Threats should be reported to law enforcement. State law allows the school principal (in addition to law enforcement) to eject any person from the school property and refuse re-entry if: (1) The person poses a substantial risk of harm to any person; or (2) The person behaves in a manner that is inappropriate for a school setting.1 To keep off of the front lines, request that law enforcement take this action, but consider doing it yourself if law enforcement drags its feet.

Save evidence. If you are being complained about on social media, preserve screenshots of all evidence.  This may be useful as things develop.

Consider filing a criminal complaint for outrageous and egregious online behavior. Texas Penal Code Section 42.07 criminalizes repeated electronic communications sent in a manner reasonably likely to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, embarrass, or offend another; or publishes on an Internet website, including a social media platform, repeated electronic communications in a manner reasonably likely to cause emotional distress, abuse, or torment to another person. The First Amendment protects a lot of speech, but it does not likely protect threats, abuse, and intentional harassment.

Request the social media platform to remove abusive content. Many social media outlets have processes for reporting abusive content.2 It might be worth contacting the social media outlet to see if they will censor the content.

If it can be safely done, offer to meet with the parent and a central office administrator or some other witness. The mere offer could take the wind out of their sails. A meeting could be fruitful. On the other hand, the rejection of a meeting will reveal the person’s true objective to continue to gripe in public. Record the meeting. Also, assume you are always being recorded in any contentious phone call or meeting.

Inform the parent of their right to file a grievance. Like an offer to meet and discuss, the parent’s response to an offer to file a grievance may be revealing. Do they want to be heard in a civil process where the participants are motivated to find a resolution? Or does the parent want to continue to rant in public?

Do nothing. Do you have the support of the people above you in the chain of command? Do those people understand you are a good employee? Is the angry parent a “frequent flyer” known for being loose with facts and logic? If so, consider laying low and letting the flame die out. While it can be unnerving to endure, most complaints and complainers have a shelf life. If you trust your bosses, let them run interference for you. Also, keep in mind that responding to an unhinged complaint can also give it the attention it desperately seeks. See the Streisand Effect.3

Encourage the school district to make a statement. If the complaint is not going away and is gaining traction in the community, it might be time to respond. If the district has your back, the district should bring forth the weight of the institution to defend its loyal employee(s). To incentivize the district to respond, perhaps you could draft a response for the district to edit. If the complaint is brought on social media, the district could respond on its Facebook page. If the complaint made it to TV news, the district should put its spokesperson in front of your campus or the boardroom. If the parent has been given an opportunity to meet with school officials and file a grievance, but has done neither, that point should be made abundantly clear to the public.

Keep talking to trusted supervisors. Keep checking in with your bosses to make sure you are still in good standing despite the withering attacks. Let your bosses know what you have done to correct any perceived merit to the otherwise uncivil complaint.

Talk to friendly board members. If the school board is aware of the complaint, if you sense the board does not know the whole story, and if you question the support of your bosses, talk to friendly board members. While this may be frowned upon by central office, if you have lost faith in your supervisors and are concerned for your job, what have you got to lose? You have a legal right to talk to board members and you should not be retaliated against for doing so.4

Get legal assistance to respond to a lawsuit. If you are sued by the angry parent for performing your job, the school district should defend you. As a TEPSA member, you also have professional liability coverage.5 If you are sued for a job-related incident, you should call TEPSA immediately so that a timely insurance claim can be made.

Hire a lawyer to defend your job. If the complaint has gained enough traction that upper administration (or the board) is questioning your actions, and if you have received a negative employment action, you should consider hiring a lawyer to protect your job. TEPSA insurance helps to defray some legal costs in protecting your job.6

Hire a lawyer to go after the complainant. You have the right to sue anyone for saying patently false things that hurt your character, but it is not so easy. The First Amendment protects truth, opinion, and satire, even if cruel and uncivil. (It does not protect threats and abuse.) You will not likely be able to keep a parent from circulating a Facebook petition that says you should be fired. A parent has a right to have the wrong opinion. While “the principal is a jerk” is not likely actionable, “the principal is a pedophile” might be. There are complex factors to consider before sending a cease and desist letter, or before filing suit, so you must seek competent legal advice.

Unlike employees or students, school officials have little control over a parent. They cannot be fired, reassigned, or disciplined. We respect that parents have statutory and First Amendment rights to complain, but you are entitled to be treated civilly. If not, the school district should have your back.

Kevin Lungwitz practices law in Austin and is a former Chair of the School Law Section of the State Bar of Texas.

1Tex. Educ. Code §37.105
2“The best way to report abusive content or spam on Facebook is by using the Report link near the content itself.” “When something gets reported to Facebook, we review it and remove anything that goes against the Facebook Community Standards.”
3“The Streisand effect is the way attempts to hide, remove, or censor information can lead to the unintended consequence of increasing awareness of that information. It is named after … Barbra Streisand, whose attempt to suppress [a] … photograph of her cliff-top residence in Malibu, California … inadvertently drew greater attention to the photograph …”  Wikipedia, last update, December 11, 2023.
4Texas Education Code Section 11.1513(j)
5For details, on the TEPSA website, go to “Membership” then “Legal Services” then “2023-24 Policy Summary.”  Insurance coverage is determined by the insurance company, not TEPSA, its lawyers, employees, or agents.

TEPSA News, March/April 2024, Vol 81, No 2

Copyright © 2024 by the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association. No part of articles in TEPSA publications or on the website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association.

Note: Information from Legal Ease is believed to be correct upon publication but is not warranted and should not be considered legal advice. Please contact TEPSA or your school district attorney before taking any legal action, as specific facts or circumstances may cause a different legal outcome.

The Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association (TEPSA), whose hallmark is educational leaders learning with and from each other, has served Texas PK-8 school leaders since 1917. Member owned and member governed, TEPSA has more than 6000 members who direct the activities of 3 million PK-8 school children. TEPSA is an affiliate of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

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