Social media spats: handling parents' on-line complaints
Handling negative comments, complaints and criticisms about the school or staff made on social media can be a minefield for the leadership team.
Personal attacks on individual teachers made in the full glare of a Facebook page accessed by parents, pupils and other members of staff can lead to low morale and even lead to psychological harm. This article considers how schools should deal with the growing phenomenon of parents taking to social media to criticise staff.
Dealing with complaints
Schools must have a Complaints Procedure. This policy should be well-publicised and should set out clearly how complaints should and should not be raised. Recent DfE guidance on complaints procedures is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-complaints-procedures.
When is a complaint unreasonable?
The DfE's sample complaints policy states that a complaint may be deemed to be unreasonable if the complainant publishes unacceptable information in a variety of media such as on social media, websites and in newspapers. It also makes clear that complaints which are raised electronically or in person will be considered unreasonable if they are malicious, aggressive, threatening, discriminatory or deliberately false.
Are the comments defamatory?
A comment which is posted on-line will be defamatory if it tends to lower the target in the estimation of right-thinking members of society and is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the target. Defences to defamation are available where the statement is true, honest opinion or where the person making it reasonably believed it was in the public interest.
Parents, staff and children need to understand that someone who posts comments on-line is publishing the comment in the public domain and that social media sites are not private spaces.
However, formal legal proceedings for defamation are unlikely to be of any immediate assistance; such proceedings are likely to be time consuming and costly.
When criticisms on social media become cyber-bullying
In some cases, on-line complaints about members of staff may cross the line into cyber-bullying. The DfE guidance states that one in five teachers report that derogatory comments have been made about them on-line by parents or pupils. As employers, schools have a responsibility to protect staff and to ensure they have a safe working environment.
DfE advice for schools when members of staff are bullied online is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/preventing-and-tackling-bullying.
Teachers and other members of staff are advised never to respond on-line to cyber-bullying and to report incidents immediately to a line manager or senior member of staff. A screenshot of the post should be retained as evidence. Where a parent is involved, the school should invite that parent to a meeting, suggest that the proper complaints procedure is used and ask them to remove the offending comments.
If the comments are not removed voluntarily, the school can approach the social networking site to ask for posts to be removed. Comments which are threatening, abusive, sexist, sexual in nature or which constitute harassment or a hate crime should be referred to the police.
their own on school premises. It is also advisable to train reception staff and others in responding to difficult and aggressive visitors to the school.
If you would like to discuss any aspect of this article further, please contact Alacoque Marvin on 0113 244 6100.
The information in this article is necessarily of a general nature. Specific advice should be sought for specific situations. If you have any queries or need any legal advice please feel free to contact Wrigleys Solicitors