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Q: I’m a principal, and there are two or three parents that attack me or my staff regularly, often on email. They threaten to call the police, sue us, beat us up by the flagpole (kidding, kind of), etc. We’ve had countless face-to-face meetings with them, I’ve engaged my boss, tried to get help from central office . . . to no avail. They are certain we are incompetent. How do I move forward when everything I say is deemed wrong? Should we meet by the flagpole and sort it out the old-fashioned way? 

A: Most schools have a few of “those” parents — the ones who can’t be satisfied. They love you or hate you depending on which way the wind is blowing. Since most people are reasonable, they tend to stand out. Yours seem particularly fun. They threaten to call the police? You worry (even a little) about being physically harmed? Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. When I looked up how often that happens, I immediately stumbled upon a recent article about a mother in Florida. She attacked her daughter’s second-grade teacher, jabbing her in the neck with her elbow until the teacher passed out. Crazy stuff does happen, so I want to be clear that I’m addressing non-physical belligerence. If you or your staff gets shoved or punched (or elbowed in the neck!), please call the police. 

Back to those emails. On the surface, these parents may be criticizing your staff, threatening lawsuits, or complaining about a decision you made, but it’s important to peel back the layers and try to discern whether there’s something else motivating their behavior, some deeper need that they’re trying to address through these exchanges. What do I mean by that? People often lash out when they’re feeling a sense of powerlessness in other areas of their life, and they’re generally unaware that they’re misplacing their anger as a coping mechanism. Even if they lose their battles with you, they’ve won your attention. Unfortunately, some people think they need to be jerks to be heard. This is exhausting and demoralizing for everyone, and it’s hard not to take poor treatment personally. But if their end goal is to feel heard and validated, then I’d look for ways to give them that without being dragged into a power struggle.  

In a peaceful moment, initiate a conversation. Be deliberate in your language. Tell them you’re all there to focus on and support their child. Tell them that you want them to feel heard. Let them air their grievances and then validate their feelings. You don’t have to agree with their complaints to tell them you understand why they feel a particular way. Ask them how they think you could set a different tone. What do they think would make your meetings more collaborative and productive? Proactively share positive news with them. I’d understand if you wanted to retreat, but that’s likely to backfire. It all goes back to meeting their unstated need. A small amount of preventive legwork could go a long way. 

Conversely, when they go into attack mode, calmly remind them that you’re there to focus on their child. If they tell you you’re incompetent, tell them you’re sorry they feel that way. Don’t take the bait. You’re never going to resolve anything with someone angry enough to call the police. As principal, I’d prioritize protecting your staff. Take the brunt of the abuse. Attend their parent-teacher meetings to avoid “he said, she said” situations. State clearly that you won’t tolerate any abuse of your employees, and terminate meetings that get out of hand. Be authentic with your teachers, too. It’s OK to tell them privately that you know these parents are difficult, you’re trying to improve the situation, and you appreciate their efforts. Your teachers need to be heard, too. They’ll be less likely to internalize the attacks if they know you have their back.  

Your instinct to get off email and talk in person was a good one, even if it didn’t have the desired effect. I also understand why you asked for backup support from central office supervisors when the conflicts continued to escalate. It’s unclear, however, what your supervisors did in response. They had several options, ranging from sending someone from the district to act as a mediator during meetings, to requiring that the parents be escorted by security, to outright banning them from school premises. It sounds like perhaps they didn’t do much for you. It’s possible you’re not effectively communicating your frustration. You may need to be clearer about what you expect them to do. You could try asking for an in-person meeting with a community superintendent or seek advice from a consulting principal. If you have an administrators’ union, you could solicit their advice, too.  

You’re never going to change people like this. Some people enjoy throwing a grenade into every conversation. Be consistent and even, and never cave when they’re nasty. On the flip side, if they’re respectful and reasonable, try to be accommodating. Over time, you may be able to get them back on track. 

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