What to do when a meeting goes wrong

Q: I’m the head of the special education department at my school, and I recently ran a screening meeting for a 6th-grade student. Her parents went through a nasty divorce, but both agreed to attend the meeting together. At the meeting, her father got really belligerent, blaming her mother for all of their daughter’s problems and even lashing out at me. He called the school and me totally useless. That’s so atypical — usually parents are appreciative of the role that special educators play. I felt uncomfortable and disrespected so I stopped the meeting and called the main office. Even though I wasn’t alone, I felt a responsibility to the other team members to establish a productive, cordial environment. I really wish an administrator had been present to help me from the get-go because I was caught so off-guard. My principal was really slow to send help, and then he acted like I should have been able to handle it myself. I felt so unsupported. What was my school’s obligation in this situation, and could I have handled it better?

A: First, your decision to halt the meeting was wise. When people are disrespectful or disruptive, it’s best to offer three simple options: Take a break, settle down, or leave. The leader’s job is to stay calm and try to defuse the situation, even as someone spirals out of control. That’s easier said than done, and you don’t drop too many clues about how you handled the blow-up beyond stopping the meeting.

I am inferring, however, that you didn’t feel the situation warranted sending someone to the office to retrieve support. Given that choice and the slow response to send help, I am wondering whether you conveyed or even felt a sense of urgency. Perhaps you didn’t feel physically unsafe but were overwhelmed by the emotional intensity. Which leads me to echo the principal’s question — if you had adjourned the meeting, why did you still need administrative backup? Did the father refuse to leave?

I can understand why you wanted the principal to be at the meeting from the outset. In any situation involving a bitter divorce, it’s reasonable to anticipate tension. Did you make this request? Your school district may even mandate the presence of a school administrator at special education meetings. That’s worth exploring for the future.

In the meantime, I admire your desire to move beyond how you were wronged and identify any room for improvement. It would be helpful to solicit feedback from the other team members at the table. How did they feel you managed the situation? Did they think you had a good command of the meeting?

As for the principal, how is your working relationship? Is he normally positive and responsive? His reaction was clearly salt in the wound after a stressful experience, and I would examine that more closely. To do that, why not answer his concern authentically? Tell him his comment upset you and left you feeling unsupported. Ask him how he would have liked you to handle the situation. He might offer constructive criticism and valuable insights. He also might apologize for jumping to conclusions without witnessing the exchange. This is an opportunity to ask for help. Maybe you would like extra training or his presence at certain meetings.

Even under the best of circumstances, running a special education meeting can be challenging. Parents often are under stress and overwhelmed, and team members don’t always agree. Throw in a marital dispute and inflammatory personal attacks, and staying focused on the child can be difficult. And that has to be the priority.

So as you reflect on your approach, be honest with yourself. Did workplace issues or insults or family dynamics prevent you from meeting the needs of the student? Run through a mental checklist and ask yourself whether you could you have achieved a better outcome for the child. That answer will tell you how effectively you handled the situation.

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.

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