Furious Facebook posts, abusive emails, school sit-ins, menacing behaviour: the bullying of staff by parents is becoming increasingly common and can have devastating consequences.
When something inside you breaks, the most basic matters can be overlooked. Take, for example, the case of Queensland construction worker Matt Barreno*. One Sunday evening in May last year, the 48-year-old flew out of his house in such a fury, he barely registered his outfit: grey flannelette pyjamas and some worn sandals he calls slippers. In that moment, there was only one thing that mattered: confronting the principal of the local high school at her home, a 20-minute drive away.
Speeding away from his mountain home in the genteel hinterland of south-east Queensland, it's unlikely he noticed the organic farms, wineries and hedges topped with tropical blooms that he drove past. Matt was gripped only by thoughts of this principal and what he believed she had done to his family.
Only moments before, he had been in bed with his wife Debra*, a nurse, checking emails before the working week, their usual practice. Things were looking up for the first time in months. They'd signed a contract to sell their house. They loved the mountain, but life here was now poisoned by a bitter legal dispute with Trisha Brodere*, the principal of the local state high school. In a landmark defamation case, symbolic of the increasingly fraught relationship between parents and schools, Brodere, a 51-year-old with 28 years in education, is suing four parents, including the Barrenos, for $220,000 each for allegedly defamatory comments made in March 2016. The case goes to trial in October. A further three parents have already settled with her and one has declared herself bankrupt under the weight of ongoing legal costs.
In comments on an online petition to reinstate Brodere, who had been suspended from school, Debra, 46, called her an "evil, nasty, horrible" woman. Matt said she's "not interested in the kids that don't fit the norm of education, only high achievers". Several years earlier, in 2014, Brodere had expelled Debra's then 12-year-old son, who has learning difficulties. The school's report into his expulsion said he made inappropriate sexual comments to a year 1 student on the school bus. Debra and Matt believed the incident was a one-off, that their son was encouraged by friends. But their pleas went unheard: despite apologies, the boy was kicked out of school two weeks after starting year 7.
In the past 2 1/2 years, with little money for lawyers, the Barrenos have represented themselves against Brodere and lost a series of legal skirmishes, making them liable for some of her legal costs. When Brodere saw that the Barrenos' house was on the market, she applied for an order to freeze their assets and secure any payment the court might award her, temporarily stopping the sale from going through. This was rather unhelpful, as the couple had signed a contract to buy their dream home on the coast. News of the order, via an email from their solicitor that Sunday night, was the last straw for Matt, the boy's stepfather.
In a rage, about 9pm he wound his way in his car to the quiet street where Brodere, her husband James* and their three young children live in a cream brick house with smart timber trims. He knocked on the door and looked up, catching a glimpse of the principal through the blinds upstairs. Brodere's 11-year-old disabled daughter came to the door and said her mother wasn't home. "I just saw her," Matt insisted. Next, James appeared. "This has gone too far," Matt remembers saying through the security door. "Get your wife down here to talk to me, because I can be reasonable. Don't shut the door or I will open the door for you."
James shut the door and said he was calling the police. Matt, who is not a big man, but is lean, sinewy and bald, with intense brown eyes, sent a round of shuddering kicks into the hard-mesh metal security door. Meanwhile, James, at the request of the 000 operator, picked up his phone and filmed the last 90 seconds of the incident. On the footage, later played in court, you can hear Trisha frantically pleading for help, then screaming, then telling her kids to go upstairs and urging her husband, who armed himself with a bread knife, to "Stay back! Go back!"
"So you are here, you f...ing piece of shit," Matt can be heard saying. The security door finally buckled inwards, hitting the front door, which was made of wood and glass panels. The door's timber frame split like matchsticks, glass shards clattered to the floor. A large hole was now in both doors and through it, you can see a pyjamas-clad figure in retreat. Matt got in his car and drove off, passing the police coming the other way, sirens on, lights flickering red and blue.
When principal John Collier made the news last year, the ABC snapped a picture that seemed to sum him up perfectly. In the photo, the head of St Andrew's Cathedral School and Gawura School in Sydney sits behind a desk stacked with piles of paper. He has a slightly slumped, world-weary disposition and a face etched by 47 years in education. He doesn't look like a headline-grabber, but last June, Collier's newsletter to his private school community - he's responsible for 1350 students - went internationally viral. A minority of parents, he wrote, had "verbally abused, physically threatened or shouted at" staff members. Sure, he said, perceived threats to children can "bring forth a reptilian kind of defensive response" in parents. But they really needed to "chill".
Chill indeed. That's the message coming loud and clear from the nation's educators, as they face a crisis level of bullying, threats and abuse from parents. One in three principals have been threatened with violence by a parent, according to a nationwide snapshot of principal health and wellbeing undertaken annually by the Australian Catholic University (ACU). In the 2018 survey of primary and secondary school principals, 21 per cent reported having been bullied by a parent - a rate that's doubled since 2011 - making mums and dads the biggest bullies in the schoolyard.
In another 2018 study, yet to be released, La Trobe University looked at "teacher targeted bullying and harassment", or TTBH, as it is known in academic circles.
Its survey of 560 teachers found nearly two-thirds had been recently bullied by a parent. Parent-led bullying was more common in primary schools, with younger, female teachers the more likely victims. The most common form of parent-led bullying was verbal; yelling and arguing on behalf of a child. Physical attacks by parents on teachers were rare: while 8.8 per cent reported a parent standing over or invading their personal space, just 1 per cent had been hit or punched by a parent.
Parents are behaving in ways once thought unimaginable. In researching this story, Good Weekend came across reports of parents going straight to the state education department if a teacher failed to hang a child's unfinished work in the classroom, rifling through teachers' desks, and asking for extra roles to be created in the school play because their child had missed out. They are staging sit-ins, hatching coup-like plots to topple principals, and tailgating educators in the car park. There are parents who undermine through gossip, often online, others with threats of legal action. And some are persistent, vexatious complainers, who pen 10-page emails with more capital letters and exclamation marks than Donald Trump's Twitter feed.
Retired NSW principal and distinguished educator Dennis Sleigh, who's written about the topic for the sector, puts problem parents into five categories: The Litigation Expert, The System Spy, The Pouting Pull-out, The Tennis Club Talker (now also the Facebook gossip) and The Bitter Volunteer. All types of parent-bullies take hours for schools to deal with - hours that could, of course, be spent on improving the education of children.
It has devastating effects on individual principals and teachers. In the La Trobe study, teachers reported anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder from bullying and harassment, with some suffering panic attacks and uncontrollable shaking. About 83 per cent said they had considered leaving the profession because of harassment from parents and students. Rattled educators are flocking to counselling programs. "We have definitely had an increase in the number of educators seeking counselling," says Marcela Slepica, director of clinical services at workplace mental health experts AccessEAP. "If they are young teachers, they might just leave the profession."
Meanwhile, state education departments, already struggling to attract new principals and battling high teacher attrition, are scrambling to address poor parent behaviour. Victoria has recently set up the Australia-first Independent Office for School Dispute Resolution to resolve toxic disputes between parents and schools. And last December, a new school community charter was rolled out across New South Wales, essentially a guide to respectful, timely and "polite" communication between parents, staff and students.
Australian Catholic University associate professor Philip Riley, the chief investigator on the principal wellbeing study, puts the situation into battle-like terms: "Our nation builders," he says, "are under attack." It's a bigger problem than just schools, he says. "Nurses, police officers and social workers are all reporting the same sorts of increases in offensive behaviour." The problem, he speculates, stems from a loss of trust in institutions we once believed in. "In some ways that's clearly a good thing. Look at how they've behaved - absolutely appallingly," he says, thinking of the church, banks, politics, cheating cricketers. "The problem is that institutions have kind of held societies together and given that we don't trust any of them anymore, the glue's gone a bit."
John Collier from St Andrew's, who stresses that "nearly all" his parents are "just wonderful", remembers the 1970s, when parents barely engaged at all. Now, he says, the problem stems from nothing less than the breakdown of societal civility. "People have become shriller in their interactions, less inclined to listen and more self-focused," he says. "I think people are following the bad example set by people in the public eye, such as politicians shouting at each other in Question Time, and sporting superstars sledging and taunting each other."
It's 2.50pm and the buses - two pale yellow and one white - are pulling up outside a high school built for lush, subtropical Queensland: little corrugated caps shade each window, big downpipes corral the rains. The footpath carries a rusty taint from the hinterland's fertile red dirt. In a nearby Kia wagon, a waiting mother, sunglasses pushed through blonde hair, bends her neck to her phone. Perhaps she waits for an anxious student. Or an ambitious one. A future artist, politician or entrepreneur? This is the nature of high school, a stage on which adolescence, its fledgling dreams, raging hormones and domestic reckonings, plays out. And this particular school is centre stage for another type of drama: the biggest principal versus parent defamation case seen in Australia.
The kids are filing out, orderly and neat, like soldiers decamping. On their heads, barely a hair is awry; on their feet, without exception, all wear black shoes and ankle-length white socks. The attention to detail is no accident. This high school is known as a public school of high standards. Principal Brodere runs a tight ship, and many parents love her for it. Parents and Citizens Association president Darren Howesdale* is one. His daughters were at another school, where one was bullied. That school, he says, did little about it. He switched them to Brodere's high school because she was known for having no tolerance for bullying, or any derogatory language towards others, and was strict on drug use and dress codes. "I am the parent of three daughters who have been through that school and turned out fantastically because of it," says Howesdale. "I respect the school so much."
In February 2016, the Queensland Department of Education suspended Brodere for reasons never explained. Brodere was subsequently reinstated in May that year, she says "cleared and fully exonerated", but for weeks the school community was left in the dark. Three weeks after Brodere's suspension, Howesdale began a Change.org petition asking the then Queensland Education Minister Kate Jones for a "fast and fair resolution" for Brodere. That's when the trouble began.
The petition quickly spread across the Facebook feeds of the hinterland community, which numbers around 7000. Many parents raved about Brodere. "My family and I came up here five years ago especially to put our daughters in arguably Queensland's best high school," wrote one parent. "Trisha [is] a brilliant mixture of old-school and modern schooling techniques." But others vehemently disagreed. How many is hard to tell as most negative posts on the petition have been deleted. Among those sued for their comments was school crossing guard Rita Scott*, a parent of two former students, who alleged Brodere was "a lying, manipulative bully" and "pathetic". Another complained bitterly about exacting measurements being taken of the length of his daughters' skirts. One called her "bad rubbish" and accused her of trying to "destroy" her daughter's future. In one particularly damaging allegation, a parent floated the incorrect idea that Brodere had been stood down for "a sex offence or a serious incident that has resulted in harm to a child". Brodere sued that parent and he settled, paying her about $93,000.
Australian principals and teachers have sued parents and students over social media and email comments before, but not often. In 2009, Jennie Ryan, the principal of Beecroft Public School in Sydney's northern suburbs, sued parent Rajaratnam Premachandran after he sent a scathing email to other parents calling for her resignation. Premachandran was ordered to pay Ryan $82,453, plus costs. In 2014, the NSW District Court ordered former student Andrew Farley to pay Orange High School music teacher Christine Mickle $105,000 for defamatory tweets and Facebook posts.
But the Brodere suit - a case aiming, at one point, for $1.76 million in damages - is a record breaker in Australia and the ongoing legal costs have already tipped school crossing guard Rita Scott into applying for voluntary bankruptcy, she says, and she may lose her house. "This has destroyed me and pretty much destroyed my whole family," she tells Good Weekend.
But Darren Howesdale, the man responsible for the petition, has little sympathy for the "keyboard warriors" who find themselves sued and at risk of losing their houses. "I don't think people realise that just because there is freedom of speech, there's no freedom of character assassination."
After several years of defending themselves - not very well, they admit - the Barrenos have put a second mortgage on their house to pay Sydney defamation lawyer Barrie Goldsmith, who has applied to resubmit their defences. The Barrenos will be relying, partly, on truth as their defence for allegedly defaming Brodere. "There are about 15 to 20 pages of particulars to support the defence of truth," says Goldsmith, who has been practising defamation law for 35 years. "I am not saying all or any of those particulars will be accepted by the court but yes, absolutely, we need to prove that the plaintiff is 'evil'."
Brodere, who is still principal at the high school, declined to be interviewed for this article, but provided a statement saying that during a five-day period in March 2016, her reputation was "severely damaged". "Despite repeated requests that the defamatory comments be removed ... those responsible ignored my requests and I was left with no choice but to issue legal proceedings." Three defendants have "made amends for their conduct", she said, but others carry on defending the case, causing "continued hurt, anxiety and distress".
Brodere ended her statement with a suggestion that she was drawing a line for all educators. "I am determined to hold those remaining defendants responsible for their actions as I believe that no school principal or teacher should be expected to suffer or endure such behaviour from the parents of former students or indeed the former students themselves."
I don't think people realise that just because there is freedom of speech, there's no freedom of character assassination.
Brodere's case will be a key legal test for how the parent-school relationship is conducted in the age of social media. In this new era, teachers can be reviewed on the privately run, national Rate My Teacher website - often devastatingly - as easily as you rate your Uber driver. Parents can destroy a reputation with a blind-copy email. One senior teacher tells Good Weekend that she came to work one day to find a parent had written a nasty email to the principal accusing her of victimising her daughter, and had blind-copied all the parents she thought would take her side.
"Email is really problematic with parents, because it doesn't matter what you say, they can cut and paste it and send it on and do terrible things," she says.
By the end of Paul O'Shannassy's 17-year teaching career, the constant stream of emails from irate parents had become unbearable. "Back in the day, if you had a problem, you would come to see me," explains the education adviser, who worked at some of Melbourne's top private schools including St Michael's Grammar and now runs Regent Consulting, a service that helps parents choose the right school for their child. "These days, a child comes home upset, Mum or Dad writes the red-wine email and copies in the year-level coordinator."
Cyber safety expert Susan McLean says she's seen a marked increase in parents behaving badly towards school staff in the past five years. McLean, who has a private consultancy based in Melbourne and visits about 230 schools each year, says parents posting gripes on the school Facebook page can be easy to deal with, because at least the school knows. More difficult is parents talking down teachers and principals on their own Facebook account, or bombarding the school with abusive emails. "For every decent parent, I would suggest there are two that are not," she says.
Shelley Hill, a Perth mother of four boys who is also the president of the non-governmental Australian Parents Council, disagrees with McLean's grim analysis. She believes most parents have great respect for teachers and only a minority are problematic. "In schools, in childcare and business, you always get those people who potentially make it more difficult than it should be and their expectation is higher and more unreasonable than normal ... but the majority of parents do the right thing." For Hill, it boils down to poor communication. "From a parent's perspective, too often decisions are made at a school level but the reason why is not communicated."
From a cramped fourth-floor office in Melbourne's CBD, Frank Handy sits at the pointy end of the most toxic disputes between parents and schools in the Victorian education system. He's chair of the Independent Office for School Dispute Resolution; a mediator, a circuit breaker, a maker of peace. The office, only two years old and part of a wider strategy designed to help reduce teacher stress and workloads, was established to counter perceptions that the Victorian Education Department had a conflict of interest when it came to investigating itself.
A former Canadian litigator, Handy wears crisp white shirts and patterned ties, and peers through brown spectacles. "Sometimes there's yelling, crying and a sense of despair," he says. "There's a lot of emotion. For parents, it's their child's safety, their child's future. And for principals, they often feel besieged. They have been trying to cope and sort out the problem. They are frustrated." By the time he gets involved, the situation is usually ugly. The education department has been unable to resolve a parent's complaint, and the relationship between the school and family has broken down. In some cases, the spat has festered for years.
Read more: Why up to half of all teachers are quitting
Aside from two thank-you cards propped up on a white bookshelf, his office is devoid of anything personal. The dispute resolution expert spends most of his time on the road, running mediation sessions in classrooms, public library meeting rooms or cafes. "We try to eliminate all the social power structures that people get concerned about with institutions," he explains.
Since opening, the office has handled almost 100 complaints, about half of which have been resolved. They typically involve how a child has been disciplined, disagreements over marks, and concerns over child safety. Handy doesn't decide who is right or wrong; his job is to help schools and families find a solution that prioritises student wellbeing. "We have the student in the centre," he says, scrawling a stick figure in his notebook. "We're all around here, making contributions," he says, adding a series of rings to his doodle.
When St Helena Secondary College principal Karen Terry, 54, sits at her desk, the owls watch her. There are ceramic owls, metal owls, cloth owls, all perched on her desk and bookshelf. A teacher gave her the first owl figurine when she was appointed principal. It symbolised wisdom, she was told. Since then, many more students and teachers have helped build her 20-strong collection. There's even an owl teapot, owl vase and a 3D-printed owl in her office at the respected state high school in Melbourne's north-east. Sometimes, her chocolate labrador Moby, whose presence helps calm difficult students, rests at her feet. Above him, in a wooden desk drawer, a bundle of abusive, anonymous letters gather dust.
I have had a parent who has made an appointment with me and come in and asked me to stop her son having sex.
They have all been written by parents. One accuses Terry, who likes to wear heels and bright-coloured outfits, of "slut-shaming" girls when she asks them to ensure their skirts are not too short. "You need to look at your own outfits," it reads. Another demands a teacher's sacking. "They can be really horrible," Terry says. The experienced educator of more than 30 years, who chairs a network of 52 state schools in Melbourne's north-east, says unreasonable expectations and bullying from parents is the number one issue facing principals.
"I have had a parent who has made an appointment with me and come in and asked me to stop her son having sex," she says. Last year, when Terry was seconded to another school for six months, she witnessed a steady stream of parents arriving at the front desk, demanding to see teachers. The catalyst for these unexpected visits? Children calling parents on their mobile phones during school hours about grievances with staff.
"The parents' response is automatic," Terry says. "They contact the school or turn up." One parent barged into the school reception and demanded a meeting because her son had "unreasonably" been ordered to stand outside a classroom for talking. The receptionist told the parent everyone was busy and promised she'd receive a call from the principal later that day. "They left and I thought, 'Oh great, this is going to be really easy,' " Terry says. But to her dismay, the parent returned half an hour later armed with a sustaining picnic of sandwiches, drinks and doughnuts. "They weren't going to move until I came out; they lasted three-and-a-half hours. They staged a sit-in."
Terry links this behaviour to what she describes as a pervasive "happy-ology" - a belief children must be happy all the time. "They don't want their children to feel any sense of discomfort or distress," she says.
Another exasperated principal, who wants to remain anonymous, recently wrote an excoriating note to parents at a middle-class suburban school in Melbourne. "It has become more and more apparent to me that we are raising some of the most fragile children ever," the note read. "It seems that many parents simply will not allow their children to experience any kind of challenge, setback, discomfort, sanction, or to take responsibility for their actions." The biggest shift in this educator's 30 years of experience has been in parental expectations. "Parents, I implore you, please let us do our job. We are professional educators who know how to deal with, and develop, young people. Every time you needlessly second-guess us, question minutiae, or simply refuse to support the school, it actively damages your children."
Terry, who has worked hard to build positive relationships with her school's families, suspects parents working long hours feel the need to compensate for not always being available. "They maybe feel a little bit guilty about not being as involved with their kids," she says. "They try to compensate by advocating for them but it's sometimes in a misguided way."
If the children are in private schools, the parents are both parents and paying customers, ones whose school fees have risen at more than twice the rate of inflation over the past decade, according to education fund provider ASG. "They are certainly more vocal, that's definitely been my experience," says Alex Kohn, a Sydney-based education lawyer who acts for schools. "Parents feel that, 'Well, I am paying all this money, I believe I am entitled to talk to whomever and get whatever it is that I am seeking.' "
Clearly people are worried and they are going to sometimes lash out.
There are other things to stress about, too - like how competitive education has become. "Everyone is worried about falling behind, and in periods of employment stress - which we are all under now - that can't be a good thing," says the ACU's Philip Riley. "And that's sealed by the whole school choice thing. Parents are forced to apparently choose between good and bad schools, and they never know if they've made the right choice or not. Clearly people are worried and they are going to sometimes lash out."
Adding to parental angst is the ultimate stressor: family breakdown. Schools are often the setting for disputes over access to children, with teachers and principals left to enforce court orders. "I have seen a significant increase in issues around supporting families, particularly when relationships aren't working," says Michael Gray, the principal of St Joseph's Primary School in Warrnambool, south-west Victoria. A 30-year education veteran, Gray is also president of the Victorian Association of Catholic Primary School Principals. "You can have issues of road rage around schools with parking, but that's pretty mundane. The high-stress area is when it's to do with children and their wellbeing, and fairness of access."
Later this year, Anni Miers will retire as principal of St Kevin's School, Hampton Park, in Melbourne's south-east, after 45 years in education. It has been, she says, a great privilege to serve communities and help each child reach their potential. But some of her worst moments have come through custodial issues: having to approach a parent quietly on school property, and say, "You need to leave this place because this is against the law and your child will be frightened to see you." In 2011, she asked a father to leave because of an intervention order. He shirtfronted her, pushing her against a wall. "You just don't expect that," she says.
Debra and Matt Barreno now live in a gated community on the Queensland coast. (The sale of their hinterland home and the purchase of this one eventually went through.) Their place - white tiled floor, silver air-conditioner, grey throw rugs - looks on to a lagoon.
Debra, warm and sunny in a white embroidered top and blue skirt, offers sponge cake and biscuits. But when Matt, in shorts and a neat shirt, sits down, his eyes betray his stress. He looks like he hasn't slept for days. He's tightly wound and his arms gesticulate in boxer-like short jabs. The police charged him with malicious damage and "threatening violence at night" over the Brodere front-door incident - there's no court date set, nor has he entered a plea or retained a lawyer - but the couple seem less worried about that than October's defamation case.
They've put everything on the line to defend it. "We didn't think at the time, 'Let's put all this stuff up about her and hopefully we might lose our house over it,' you know?" says Debra. "We didn't create this, they did," she says of the school's Parents and Citizens Association, led by Howesdale, who put up the petition to reinstate principal Brodere.
As a gecko darts up an outside wall near the barbecue, the conversation turns to Matt's schooling. "I was the skinny little wog that didn't know how to speak English and never had the right shoes or the right socks or the right uniform," says Matt, who was born in Uruguay. "I was the wog that got picked on. I know what bullying is like; I grew up with it all my life." This experience, along with his sense of justice for people being bullied, and his acute loyalty to his family, has influenced his handling of the high school saga. The Barrenos say they offered an apology at mediation, but Brodere did not accept it. (Brodere denies this.)
Brodere filed a defamation suit in June 2016 against the Queensland Department of Education for $380,000 in damages for defamation, invasion of privacy and breach of confidence relating to a complaint that Brodere harassed and discriminated against a staff member. She dropped the case when reinstated as principal.
We're interrupted by the arrival of Lisa Bellair*, 49, another defendant. She alleged in her 2016 Facebook post that Brodere made her two sons' lives "a nightmare" and that some parents had been trying to get rid of the principal for years. But Bellair spent most of her post talking about one incident in which she was told to take her sons home because they had dyed their hair. She says she was often called to Brodere's office to discuss her sons' suspension over dress code violations and minor infringements. Brodere, she says, told her that people with bold hair colour never get jobs and advised her not to allow her sons to get facial piercings. Bellair herself has a nose and eyebrow piercing and, at the time, a bright purple fringe. In the period in which she received the writ, her husband left her and she was forced to sell the house.
Early last year, she told Brodere's lawyers that she had no money. "I said, 'If your client has even a shred of compassion, you will let me go from this case.' " In response to this plea, she says, Brodere's lawyers reduced the amount they were seeking from $220,000 to $90,000. "It just goes to show how much she despises me after all these years. Every single time something happened with my kids I challenged her and that's something we all did, we challenged her." Another sued parent, who was also coming to the Barreno home to meet Good Weekend, texts Debra while we're there, pulling the plug. "I keep having panic attacks and I can't stop crying," the text reads.
There's a pause in the conversation. The stakes seem so ridiculously high: that a few social media comments can lead to such stress, financial pain, bankruptcy and the risk of losing your home. Not to mention an alleged home invasion and the hurt, pain and sheer terror suffered by a principal. But there's also, with these parents here, an enduring sense of defiance, a feeling that ultimately, they did the right thing by their children.
"Yeah, I kicked the door in," Matt says. "I am not saying it was the right thing. But I did it because I got pushed so far. We are just parents who stood up for our child. I am a man who stood up for my family."
* Some names have been changed.
This story was originally published in Good Weekend magazine.