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Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter

Dear Legal Mailbag:

Long-time reader, first-time writer.

When I took the job of principal, I knew that dealing with angry and sometimes irate parents would be part of the job. However, recently I am starting to question when continuous email communication crosses the line between “an angry parent email” and abuse.

As I write this, I am dealing with a disgruntled parent who emails me daily. I have tried to engage in phone conversations and have offered face-to-face meetings. However, my attempts to improve communication have been met with rejection and refusals. The emails have been coming since the beginning of the school year, and recent weeks, it has gotten worse. Now, I awaken each day to a multi-paragraph rant, laced with personal insults about my judgment and my character, with members of Central Office cc’ed on the emails.

While I have received sympathy from the Central Office, the emails continue. I am feeling defenseless, and, to be honest, these daily screeds are taking a toll on my mental health. Can something be done legally to make her stop? Where do her rights end and mine begin?

Battered and Bruised

Dear Battered:

Legal Mailbag joins your Central Office in conveying sympathy for your situation. Legal Mailbag condemns the uncivil behavior of this parent (and similar behavior of others), and offers you a strategy for dealing with the situation and, hopefully, for improving your mental health.

Let’s start by setting the legal context. This parent has a right of free speech. There are limits to that right, however, and parents or others can be held liable for defamation. People can be liable for defamation against a public official if (1) they make a factual assertion, (2) which is untrue, (3) which harms reputation, and (4) which false assertion is made with malice or reckless disregard for the truth. Unfortunately for you, however, the expression of opinion is protected speech. To wit: “Paul Principal is taking money from the student activity account,” if false, would be defamatory, and “Paul Principal is ignorant and does not know what he is doing” is an expression of opinion, however mean-spirited, which is not.

You have rights as well. You are not obligated to acquiesce in the parent’s insistence on limiting communication to email. You can decide whether and when to respond to emails. You do not have to open emails from an abusive parent. You can set conditions for future communication with this parent. Those conditions can include limits on frequency of communication and prohibitions against personal attacks. In consultation with your Central Office, you can even establish a communication protocol that requires that the parent get permission to communicate directly with you, and then only under moderated conditions.

Legal Mailbag wonders whether and how you have pushed back against this abusive parent. The strategies above are listed roughly in order of escalation, and the first level response would be to inform the parent that, while you remain willing to communicate, you will not tolerate insulting or abusive statements from her. You may also insist that the parent meet with you and not limit communication to email. However, Legal Mailbag would be reluctant to take email communication off the table completely, because can email serve to document your communication with the parent and, perhaps more important, the parent’s communication with you.

Legal Mailbag confesses to an optimistic streak, but Legal Mailbag has also been around the block and recognizes that your implementing these two strategies may not correct the problem. Indeed, the parent could push back and claim that you are not going to tell her how to communicate. But ultimately you are in control of the situation, and in response to the parent’s persisting in rude or abusive emails, you may escalate by informing the parent that you will be reading the parent’s emails once per week and that you will not be responding to any email with insulting or abusive language. If those strategies are not effective, in consultation with your supervisors, you can cut off direct communication entirely, as described above.

Finally, Legal Mailbag notes that there is one related legal issue. The FERPA regulations include the following provision:

(c) The educational agency or institution, or SEA or its component shall respond to reasonable requests for explanations and interpretations of the [educational] records.

34 C.F.R. § 99.10(c). However, any abusive request would not be reasonable, and more generally you and your colleagues can decide who can be respond to questions from this parent.