Teachers experience a growing number of angry, abusive parents

The enraged mother of a kindergartner stormed into her child’s classroom. She allegedly punched her kid’s teacher in the face, grabbed her by the hair and slammed her head twice into a file cabinet.

It made national news for its shock value. But the nation’s public school teachers and principals were not at all surprised at the violent outburst this month at a Hickman Mills elementary school.

They’ve had to contend with a growing number of angry and sometimes abusive parents in recent years.

“When I saw that on the news,” said retired Kansas City principal Roxanne Pearce, “those were the things that gave you the headaches and upset stomach.”

Whether they work in poor urban districts or affluent suburban ones, experts say, teachers and administrators are increasingly becoming punching bags and targets of verbal abuse by students as well as their parents.

Of course, the vast majority of parents are helpful and supportive of the teachers to whom they have entrusted their children’s educations. But teachers also must deal with more hotheads than a generation ago.

Today’s parents, educators say, are more likely to lash out with verbal or physical abuse over just about any type of real or perceived mistreatment. And not only in the United States. A 2011 survey in England found that one in 10 principals reported being assaulted by parents.

Kids are also more likely to cross boundaries by showing disrespect and issuing threats.

“Teachers go to work every day and too high a number of them go not feeling safe,” said Dorothy Espelage, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has been studying teacher victimization.

That Hickman Mills mom thought the teacher had scratched her child. As it turned out, police said, the child made that up.

But confrontations in person, over the phone or by text or email also erupt for any number of reasons, with grades and student discipline leading the way, according to the findings of a 2005 survey of 7,000 educators in Kentucky.

While there’s no conclusive data showing how often these encounters turn violent, incidents like the one Sept. 5 at Truman Elementary School regularly make headlines:

• At an elementary school in Donalsonville, Ga., during Teacher Appreciation Week in May, a 49-year-old mother allegedly beat a teacher with a broomstick and pulled her screaming down a hallway by her hair. The spark that set it off was the teacher’s insistence that the woman have a visitor’s pass to be in the building.

• A woman and her two daughters were arrested this year for allegedly beating a Los Angeles middle school teacher during the school day in a dispute over scheduling.

• This spring, after breaking up a fight between two fourth-graders, a substitute teacher in Brooklyn allegedly was pummeled by the father of one of the boys. The man accused the teacher of choking his son during the altercation.

“For a parent to walk into a building and bloody my face in front of students so badly that I’m slipping on my own blood,” the teacher told a TV reporter, “what are you doing to help the teachers?”

‘Silent national crisis’

One thing that might help the teachers, said Espelage, would be if society took the problem seriously enough to study it properly. Detailed analyses don’t exist.

So little is spent to research the extent of the problem and the societal reasons behind it that the American Psychological Association this year called violence against teachers “a silent national crisis.”

Crisis or not, the spring publication in the American Psychologist of the scientific paper meant to sound that alarm, “Understanding and Preventing Violence Directed Against Teachers,” brought only shrugs from the news media and public at large. The paper’s plea for more research dollars, Espelage said, yielded little to none.

“There just doesn’t seem to be that much traction with folks realizing that (teaching) is a hazardous occupation,” said Espelage, who was the paper’s lead author and led an APA task force on classroom violence.

Among the things we don’t know is how many teachers and administrators are being cussed out, threatened or physically attacked at work.

There is no uniform data collection of attacks on teachers by students or parents. The Missouri Department of Education, for example, has no such records, a spokeswoman for the agency said.

Some surveys have been done, but not many. One by the National Center for Education Statistics said a quarter of a million teachers in 2003-2004, about 7 percent of the teaching force, had been threatened with violence or assaulted by students. But parental abuse wasn’t even addressed.

Other studies that factor in verbal abuse that doesn’t rise to the level of a personal threat put the numbers far higher. In a 2011 online survey, four out of five teachers reported at least one incidence of “victimization,” including verbal abuse, in the previous year.

But the American Psychologist paper acknowledged that the survey results might not be representative. Educators who had been victimized might have been more likely to have responded.

Of those telling the APA they were victims of abuse, 37 percent said they were dressed down, cursed or threatened by parents.

“Teachers take a tremendous amount of verbal abuse sometimes,” said Claudette Johns, executive director of the Kansas chapter of the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association.

Seeking answers

Beyond the lack of firm numbers on the scope of the problem, there is even less information on the underlying causes of abusive behavior directed at public school teachers, administrators and staff.

How does socioeconomic status play in? Stress? Age, gender, race or ethnicity?

No one knows for sure. The studies to determine that haven’t been done or are inconclusive.

Some educators point to youthful, stressed-out single moms with low incomes as being those most likely to heap abuse on teachers.

“Babies growing up to have babies,” said Andrea Flinders, a classroom teacher for decades before becoming full-time president four years ago of Local 691 of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in Kansas City Public Schools.

“Our parents today are angrier,” she said, attributing that in part to their financial situations, as many middle-income families have left the district. “It’s this whole culture of poverty.”

That and a lack of maturity. Many young parents lack coping skills. Rather than discuss their concerns, they act out.

“It’s a sign of the times,” said Joyce White, who retired in 2010 after 38 years as a teacher and principal in the Kansas City district. “I think you have a lot of people being parents who have no business being parents.”

But Espelage said verbal abuse spans the socioeconomic spectrum. She knows affluent parents who, while stopping short of violent threats, aggressively question the grades that teachers hand out to their kids and are highly disrespectful.

“I wouldn’t blame it all on the teenage moms,” she said.

Calming techniques

Keeping a cool head is key to preventing and deflating conflicts, veteran teachers and administrators say. The NEA even provides special training courses on dealing with angry parents.

Among the bits of advice given is that, above all, it’s important to listen to a parent who is upset and has heard only one side of a story, the child’s.

Put yourself in the parent’s shoes. Try not to be defensive.

“You can’t take it personal,” White said. “I would always try to calm them down, and if they wouldn’t, I’d ask them to leave and come back. ‘And if you don’t leave, I’m going to have to call the police.’”

She did that more than once as a principal at a number of schools, including her last post, Pinkerton Elementary. Never did things turn violent.

Parents don’t get special training in how to deal with teachers. In some districts, it’s hard enough to get them to an ice cream social, let alone a course on interpersonal relations.

But Kim Bailey, PTA president at Eagle Glen Intermediate School in the Raymore-Peculiar School District and a therapist specializing in marriage and family counseling, said she regularly hands out advice to parents who have a beef with their kids’ teachers.

Take a deep breath. Stay calm. Maybe the teacher who didn’t return their emails isn’t being disrespectful so much as he or she is swamped with work.

“It’s a very informal approach,” Bailey said. “Focus on the problem, not the person.”

Very few teachers are physically abused, but one survey showed that a third of teachers said they were subjects of verbal abuse, often laced with profanity, from students and parents.

One fourth of that group said they had considered changing professions because of it.

Losing good teachers to burnout was one of the main concerns of the American Psychological Association’s task force.

Johns at Kansas NEA said she worries about that too, having seen the negative effects that abusive behavior has on teachers.

“I’m not sure it’s a huge problem, but when it happens to you, it becomes a huge problem,” she said. “I have personally seen the careers of teachers destroyed because they become less confident in their work.”

Teachers are taught that they should welcome interaction with parents, recognizing that they are partners in a child’s education, said Ken Weaver, dean of the teachers college at Emporia State University.

Welcome it they do, Flinders said. But at those times when that relationship turns hostile, teachers for the most part put things in the proper perspective.

“When you’re there for the kids,” she said, “you tend to overlook the parents’ behavior.”