We’ve winced through the videos of an irate father grabbing a soccer coach’s collar or lobbing a volley of four-letter words at another Little League dad.
We’ve read the headlines about the Muncie, Ind., eighth-grader who put urine in his teacher’s coffee and the Elgin science teacher who lost an eye when a teenager stabbed her.
But there’s another wrinkle to the rash of relatives roughing up coaches and kids battering teachers. It’s a hushed-up brand of parental fury that’s fuming through the halls of schools in Chicagoland and around the globe.
"Parental rage has moved from the sports field to the classroom," says Derek Randel, a former Buffalo Grove teacher, author of Attacking Our Educators and a national advocate on stopping school violence.
Randel, who taught high school and middle school math for a dozen years, had first-hand experience with fuming fathers long before he started tracking the trend around the world.
In one of several instances of parents hurling threats at him, a dad irate over his son’s grade made a lunge at Randel while the school principal looked on.
No one called the police. In fact, the attack was never mentioned by school administrators again, Randel says. But one thing did change. Since the low grade was the product of uncompleted assignments, school officials told Randel to scale back algebra homework for the entire class.
In case you think it’s just the victimized teacher who suffers when moms and dads turn to violence to log their complaints, think again. Your child loses, too. When Randel fractionalized his math homework, for example, every student in his class was bound by a decision forced on them by a teacher and a principal intimidated by one angry parent.
Parents gone wild
Between 1997 and 2001, the latest data available, about 1.3 million teachers were victims of nonfatal crimes at schools in the USA. The number of resulting worker’s compensation claims is soaring. In his book, Randel documents escalating accounts of teacher abuse by parents (and students) on nearly every continent.
"Success in any school is like a puzzle with a lot of pieces," says Rick Perrotte, coordinator of safety and security for the Chicago Teachers Union. "When one breaks down, the whole system breaks down. If students and staff can’t feel safe, that’s going to affect everyone’s ability to teach and to learn."
The CTU gets regular reports of parents threatening and attacking teachers, Perrotte says, but no one keeps exact numbers. For instance, police were called to a southeast suburban elementary school last spring when a parent unhappy with his child’s grade attacked a teacher in the principal’s office, he says. Or Randel documents a dad who punched a school bus driver for a northern suburb school because he thought the bus was going too fast over the speed humps.
"The issue of parents attacking teachers is certainly a concern," says Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland, Ohio.
"School staff must recognize that many parents who come to school to meet with them may very well be frustrated with the child," he says. "Still, there is absolutely no excuse for a parent to become verbally or physically abusive to school staff and schools must be prepared to take action including calling in the police if parents become abusive or assault staff."
A lot of times, they do. Samples of "parents gone wild" across the country found in recent news reports include:
n Last February, Atlanta police charged a high school student and her mother in the beating of the girl’s teacher, Felicia Williams. According to a report in the Atlanta Constitution, when the teacher asked them to leave, the mother grabbed the teacher’s hair, threw her to the ground and "stomped the teacher."
n In Baltimore last May, teacher Sandra Herrera filed criminal assault charges after parent Sherry Shields, angry that Herrera asked her daughter not to interrupt the class, stormed into her classroom charter school in West Baltimore and knocked her to the floor, according to Fox News WJZ.
n In February, a father broke a male teacher’s nose at Rennie High School in Pointe Claire, Quebec, because he was "very upset" with his child’s class progress.
"Bullying by parents, both in-person and via the Internet, has grown totally out of control," Randel says. "When a parent hears a negative comment about a student from a teacher it’s no longer ‘What did you do?’ It’s ‘What did your teacher do to you?’" he says.
We read about the attacks that made the newspaper because police were called. But far more often, Randel, Perrotte and Trump agree, outrageous parental outbursts like the ones they know about slip silently into the circular file of school administrators’ memory banks.
Randel and Perrotte both stopped short of naming local names and schools. It’s a self-imposed gag order that speaks volumes about why the cases of parents assaulting teachers that do see the light of day are just the tip of the chalk stick, both say.
Why is it such a secret when a parent comes to blows with a teacher? It all boils down to image, jobs and money, local educators say.
Untenured teachers who inform about skirmishes with parents are apt to find their jobs at risk. Administrators are quick to point the finger at the teacher for the incident because they have more control over their own employee than an irate mom or dad, Perrotte says.
Principals don’t like reports of embarrassing episodes filtering to parents and the media because it jeopardizes the district’s reputation for safety. That kind of bad rap can even filter down to drive down property values throughout the school district, Randel says.
"If the public hears about incidents of threats and assaults in the school, there’s likely to be a hue and cry that the school is out of control," Perrotte says. "It’s just easier for principals to dismiss it and for teachers to just take the abuse and go unreported."
Some of the cultural dynamics spawning parental aggression are learned patterns of family violence, poor economic conditions, unstable family environments and alienation from the school community by uninvolved parents, according to education research. School violence experts also talk about a general decline in civility and intense competition to win spots in prestigious colleges.
Randel thinks parents’ antagonism toward school officials may reflect Baby Boomer skepticism toward authority now taking new life through their interactions with the next generation’s educators.
Turning to violence as a way to solve problems doesn’t end with a conflict between a teacher and a parent, Randel says. It morphs into a model for bullying in school, dating violence, domestic violence and workplace bullying.
"We have to connect the dots," Randel says.
Tips for positive relations with teachers
• As tough as it is, try to separate your emotions about your child from the facts about the situation.
• Don’t pick up the phone as soon as your child tells you about a problem at school. Wait until the next day to give yourself a chance to calm down.
• Build the relationship before you need the relationship. It takes eight times longer to unlearn something than it does to learn something. A positive first impression is a lasting one. Send the teacher a friendly note early or find something to thank her for early in the school year.
• Focus on the future, not the past. This year’s teacher has nothing to do with last year’s.
• The best way to get the last word is to apologize. "I’m sorry that happened" is a way to apologize without accepting or placing blame.
• Never argue, yell or use sarcasm.
Source: Todd Whitaker, Indiana State University education professor and author of "Dealing with Difficult Parents" and "Dealing with Difficult Teachers."
Robyn Monaghan is a freelance writer and mom living in Plainfield.