Dealing with a parental complaint

26 February 2019


It is the first day back after the February half term break and there appears to be a new trend amongst pupils of taking "unattractive" pictures of each other on their mobile phones and posting them to social media.

Each picture is accompanied by a comment along the lines of "isn't she pretty…not!" and is followed by a stream of comments from other users, some of which are extremely unpleasant. The DSL at this co-educational independent day and boarding school has been alerted to the issue by a junior member of staff and feels it is necessary to approach the Head to report it as a safeguarding concern. There are general concerns about this inappropriate online behaviour by several pupils at the school, but the DSL has particular concern for one pupil (pupil X) who appears to have fallen victim to this trend on several occasions.

Whilst in discussion in the Head's office, an email is received from the parents of pupil X. They wish to pursue a formal complaint against the School for its failure to address a number of concerns, which were raised informally prior to half term. The complaint is against the Head and other members of staff. The Head had met with them about a month ago to discuss their concerns around pupil X not fitting in with her peers and being unhappy at school. Pupil X was seemingly more vulnerable to peer-pressure and bullying since she started in Year 9 and has not been progressing academically this year.

The Head's PA then telephones to confirm that the police are on the line and have asked to speak to the Head regarding a report of harassment made by the parents of a pupil at the school. You suspect that the police may have been contacted by the parents of pupil X.

How should you react?

Option 1:

Do nothing - after all, the concern has only been raised by a junior member of staff and the pupils will have forgotten about it and moved on by next week. You have already met with the parents of pupil X and the school is already doing everything it can. You feel that if the police require any information, they should put their request to you in writing.

Option 2:

Deal with internal matters – you consider this to be a school issue and agree with the DSL that the matter should be investigated by the School. You decide that it is appropriate to follow the School’s Safeguarding Policy and a report should be provided to you by the investigating officer so that you can consider how best to proceed. You decide that you will return the call from the police later and send an email back to the parents of Pupil X before the end of the week.

Option 3:

Reflect on external factors - you confirm that you will take the call from the police now to clarify the current situation and understand what is needed from the School. Whilst on the call, you confirm whether an internal investigation into the misuse of social media by pupils at the school is appropriate. You take the crime number and contact details for the police and confirm that on receipt of a written request for information, the School will consider how it can assist. You know you will need to consider any legal obligation to provide the information requested and can speak to the School’s legal advisors, if necessary.

Option 4:

Deal with school matters - this reported behaviour clearly breaches the School’s Behaviour Policy and IT Acceptable Use Policy, even though some of the behaviour is happening out of school hours and on third party apps/websites. You will follow all relevant school policies, ask the Deputy Head to investigate and arrange to see each pupil involved. Appropriate sanctions will be awarded and depending on the circumstances, it may be necessary to exclude. The details will be logged on SIMS and the briefing this afternoon will be used to alert staff to the issue and insist that any associated evidence or misbehaviour is to be passed to you. In line with your safeguarding duties, you aim to minimise any risks associated with this bullying trend, including: re-visiting the PSHE and assembly timetable to ensure that the relevant issues are covered over the next few weeks. You will draft a letter to be sent to all parents regarding the use of social media and how to keep their children safe online. The amount of detail that can be provided about this incident will depend on the status of the police investigation. Parents of those involved will receive individual letters to update them on any disciplinary action taken. The Chair of Governors will be updated and the letter from the parents of Pupil X will be forwarded to the Clerk to the Governors to respond in line with the Complaints Policy.

Option 5:

Consider the wider picture - you address the external requirements set out in option 3 and the internal requirements at option 4. In addition, you consider whether it is necessary to make any school policy changes. You will consult with the SLT to review the Safeguarding Policy, IT Acceptable Use Policy, Behaviour Policy and Code of Conduct and table a discussion to look at the possibility of introducing a blanket policy. A complete ban on phones in school may be what is required to stamp out this (and other) growing and concerning trends.

Our view

Option 1 - is not an acceptable course of action and ignoring such issues at an early stage can mean that matters escalate quickly. There may be a new trend in a few weeks’ time, but this should not mean that bullying and breaches of your Behaviour Policy or IT Acceptable Use Policy should be tolerated. Clear and consistent application of sanctions is essential when behaviour falls below the expected standard.

Whilst it is important for the School to follow its Safeguarding Policy, as per option 2, the first stage in any such policy should include liaising with external agencies. As the matter has now been reported to the police as a harassment case, the DSL should liaise with the local authority to determine whether the case meets the threshold for a referral and how best to deal with any internal investigation by the School. As the parental complaint is about you, it is not appropriate for you to respond in detail – rather, the email should be passed to the Clerk to the Governors to be dealt with under the School's Complaints Policy.

Option 3 - it is advisable to speak to the police at the earliest possible opportunity to understand: the nature of the report, whether an individual has been or will be charged with an offence; where they are with any investigation; and what co-operation is required from the School. There may be a multi-agency meeting/phone conference to determine how best to proceed. Any police investigation will take precedence and the School should not do anything to prejudice an investigation or trial.

Option 4 - covers a number of the internal actions that should be taken in addition to following your Safeguarding Policy and procedure. All of these steps appear entirely sensible in the circumstances.

Option 5 - represents our recommended course of action. Consider both the external and internal elements of the case and ensure that they can run concurrently. Any significant policy changes may need to be ratified by the Governing Body. Staff may also require refresher training on confiscating prohibited items from pupils and the issues relating to searching pupils and their property. Any blanket ban could permit phones to be carried in school bags for emergency use only and stipulate that they are not otherwise to be used whilst pupils are on-site.

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