Thursday 23 November 2017

Dear David Coleman: We worry that our children's school principal frightens them but we can't do anything about it

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. Our children complain that their school is a very frightening place. They say the principal humiliates, bullies, shouts and screams at children and at teachers. There is a huge turnover of staff every year. Several children also leave the school each year due to anxiety. Parents have complained to the board of management, the school patron, Tusla, the Department of Education and the Ombudsman for Children, but nobody seems to be listening. We have no other school option for our children but remain so worried for them.

David replies: As we know from cases of bullying amongst children, it can be very hard to prove that one child has said something mean, offensive or degrading to another unless it is witnessed or recorded in some way. If it is witnessed, then the witnesses need to feel safe and strong enough to report or recount what they have seen or heard.

Many children do worry that they won't be believed, especially if they are complaining about the behaviour of an adult, or someone they deem to be more powerful than them. Yet, it is hard to believe them without some kind of evidence or tangible examples of the bullying behaviour.

While it may seem unfair to place the onus of proof on the targets of bullying, false allegations of bullying can be equally damaging and very unfair on whoever has been accused.

If what your children describe is true, the nature of the alleged behaviour of the principal could be very harmful to the emotional wellbeing of students and staff. If they have clear examples of times when they felt verbally attacked, or humiliated by the principal, then I could see how they may be frightened to go into school.

At a personal level, you haven't mentioned that the principal has been directly negative to your own children. Your concern seems to be about a dynamic of fear that you believe the principal creates.

Does that dynamic impact on the culture, atmosphere or ambience within the school? Is there a general sense that the school is threatening, frightening or distressing?

You suggest that teachers and students are voting with their feet in terms of leaving the school, but what links these decisions to leave with the behaviour of the principal?

Have families who have left the school reported the actions of the principal as their reason for moving?

If it is clear that the principal picked on certain members of staff, or targeted particular students, then those teachers and parents need to be supported to tell their stories. It is not enough to assume that their reasons for leaving are directly attributable to the principal.

You list a wide range of agencies that you say parents have contacted. Do you know the parents who have complained and do you know the exact nature of their complaints? Have you made specific complaints about experiences that your children have had? It does seem strange that none of the agencies you list have taken any action if the evidence for the principal's behaviour is there.

I would, absolutely, champion your right to be able to complain about actions that a principal, or any staff member, has taken that you believe are harmful to your children. But you must also be careful not to generate some kind of witch-hunt without clear evidence of both the actions and the harm.

You, or other parents who might be concerned, need to document evidence of any alleged mistreatment by the principal of your children.

If you are concerned about the environment of the school, and if you have exhausted the various complaints procedures both within and outside the school, then you may have little option but to take your children out.

In conscience, you can't leave them in an environment that you believe to be bad for them.

While I hear you say there are no other school options for your children, we do always have alternatives. They may not be ideal but if they alleviate the distress you describe your children feeling, then they are worth considering.

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