Teachers want 'civility policy' for parents

Aggressive and sometimes rude parents are making teaching more difficult, Bainbridge educators say.

Adults barging into classrooms, demanding information and berating teachers in front of students are examples of bad behavior that would be outlawed under a draft policy against uncivil parental conduct.

“We have standards of behavior for kids and for staff, but not for parents,” said Cheryl Dale, school board president. “We’re saying, there is a proper way of behaving for adults.”

While parents should be passionate about their children’s learning, educators say, problems arise when “assertive” becomes “aggressive.” And clashes have increased to a dozen or so each year.

“We’ve had incidents confounding to staff and witnessed by students,” said Kathy Gilbreath, Woodward librarian and head of the local teachers’ union, the Bainbridge Island Education Association.

“In general, it’s a demand for immediate service, so the teachers can’t make priority use of the time.”

Wilkes librarian and BIEA President-elect Patti Schlosser say few parents “cross the line.” But it may not take many such incidents for the general teaching climate to be affected, they say.

“We’re talking about ‘in your face.’ It’s the kind of thing, when you see it you know,” Schlosser said. “Living with the threat is crippling. You can’t teach when you’re being intimidated or pushed around.”

Said Deputy Superintendent Ken Crawford: “There is student-on-student harassment and bullying here, but this is the most prevalent form in our school culture.”

Teachers have for several years raised the issue before the Representative Council, a body of teachers that hear peers’ concerns.

But the issue reached a flashpoint this past year, after problems with one couple who school officials say repeatedly came into a grade-school classroom, disrupting lessons.

So last month, a committee comprising Superintendent Steve Rowley, Crawford, Gilbreath, and other administrators and teachers met to craft a new policy, the “Prohibition Against Uncivil Conduct.”

The committee began by researching similar policies put in place at Mercer Island and Issaquah schools, districts demographically similar to Bainbridge.

The draft policy, which received a first reading at the June 11 school board meeting, defines uncivil conduct and promotes a “safe environment.”

“Our interest is not to impose upon, restrict or limit a parent’s right to advocate for their child in an appropriate manner,” Crawford said. “We do need to provide guidance to teachers as to what really is acceptable and unacceptable and when to seek assistance.”

Rudeness 101

As defined, “uncivil conduct” would range from basic obnoxiousness to violations of law.

Objectionable behavior would include:

Profanity, threats, jeers and personal epithets; “contextually inappropriate” yelling or raising voice against another; repeated interruptions; blocking an individual from leaving a room; threatening physical harm or personal damage; invading “personal space” after being asked to move away; refusing to leave a classroom; persistently confronting a staff member on school-related matters outside of work; gesturing or posturing in a manner that puts another in fear for personal safety; and videotaping or recording without permission.

Suggested responses to incivility range from on-the-spot resolution to calling 911.

“I think (teachers) just get blindsided when situations arise,” Schlosser said. “The exchange seems reasonable and then the situation escalates.”

While Bainbridge schools have not sought restraining orders against belligerent adults, Crawford said that notices of “no trespass” have been issued to both parents and students.

And, Dale said, it is not uncommon for a teacher to insist a third party be present during parent-teacher discussions.

The new policy is intended to help staff respond quickly to resolve issues. If on-the-spot resolution isn’t possible, unmanageable situations should be swiftly passed up the line to administrators who may be better able to cope with disgruntled parents.

“Teachers tend to be altruistic and sensitive,” Gilbreath said. “They really don’t enjoy being in a conflict situation. They may not know when to seek help.”

The implicit subjectivity of definitions of such behavior as a “raised voice” troubles some board members.

Several say that what may be perceived as threatening behavior by one party may be considered “strong advocacy” of their child’s needs by the other.

School board member Mike Scott noted that “legislating behavior may not be effective, since incivility is all too common.”

Some also say that what could be classified “uncivil” is addressed in other school policies already in place.

“Easily half of them would be ‘harassment,’” Weiland said.

The policy has gone back to committee for refinement.

“I think what we really want to do is empower staff,” Weiland said. “The real issue may be training. What we need are a series of tools for conflict resolution, because it’s not so important what the behavior is as how you deal with it.”

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