Nowadays, it’s all too common for parents to take to social media and criticise their child’s school. The impact should not be underestimated. As well as being incredibly demoralising for school staff, unpleasant posts can do lasting damage to reputations and negatively affect business.
Whilst the law does not offer any sort of magic solution, schools should not feel powerless when confronted with negative online content. This is because a careful but methodical response will usually resolve matters. Follow the steps below to prevent parental posts becoming a pain point.
1. Have a social media policy
Publish a written policy in which you set out your expectations of parents in regard to social media. Make it clear that you expect parents to behave respectfully and that any concerns should be raised directly with the school. Explicitly discourage parents from venting their grievances in online forums.
You can either publish a specific policy or address the matter in a more general document, for example, an overarching social media policy that includes your ‘acceptable use’ rules for pupils. Independent schools may wish to go one step further and make compliance with the social media policy a term of the school-parent contract. Either way, the wording should be carefully drafted and readily available.
A policy or contractual provision of this sort will serve as useful point of reference in the event that a parent posts something inappropriate online: it establishes a set of rules.
2. Identify the author of the statement
Upon discovering an unpleasant post, make efforts to identify the author.
More often than not, the person’s identity will be obvious, either from the content or because they are named. However, in some instances this will not be so and you may need to conduct enquiries, for example by talking to staff. If you cannot identify the author of the post, contact the provider. They will then be required to identify the author or to take down the content.
More often than not they will do the latter.
3. Contact the parent
Having identified the parent, the next step is to make contact. This is best done by telephone or in person rather than by way of correspondence, after all it is the parent’s tendency to write nasty things that is the problem! Draw the post to the parent’s attention and ask them to confirm if they are the author.
If the parent admits responsibility, remind them of your policy and invite them to remove the post. Encourage them to work with you to resolve their concerns, if necessary by invoking the school’s formal complaints procedure, a process which enables grievances to be addressed in a structured, linear way and which, if well-drafted and conscientiously followed, is likely to be of great benefit to all parties.
In most cases, the parent will see sense at this point and remove the content.
4. Take legal action
Should the parent refuse to remove the post, a number of avenues exist, including:
● Contacting the social media platform in question and asking them to remove the posts. Some providers are more responsive than others but it is rare for concerns to be totally ignored.
● Legal proceedings for libel/defamation where the content is untrue and likely to seriously harm your reputation. If pursued to its conclusion, this will involve appearing before the High Court, so is not to be embarked upon lightly. However, in some cases it may be appropriate.
● Where the posts are threatening or abusive, the police may be prepared to get involved. It is possible that a criminal offence may have been committed, for example, under the Malicious Communications Act 1988, which makes it illegal (in England and Wales) to ‘send or deliver letters or other articles for the purpose of causing distress or anxiety’.
● Terminating the contract with the parent (and, in effect, the child’s place) where your terms and conditions allow for this. Note though that this is potentially unfair on the child and that it won’t, on its own, result in the post being removed.
Before taking any of the above steps, it is advisable to send a formal letter to the parent, setting out what the problem is, why it is a problem and what you require from the parent.
Legal input can be extremely beneficial in this context and, in our experience, the earlier advice is sought, the more likely a positive outcome. Our team of specialist education lawyers have a wealth of relevant experience and our history of representing parents gives us a unique insight into the issues.
Contact Sinclairslaw for a free discussion about how we can support you. Our specialist lawyers pride themselves on providing prompt, practical advice that you can trust.
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