6 Jul 2015

Principals dealing with more legal disputes

11:35 am on 6 July 2015

Secondary school principals say they are dealing with an increasing number disputes involving parents which is taking time away their job of running a school.


Photo: 123rf

The number of threats of legal action from angry parents has prompted the Ministry of Education, the Secondary Principals Association and Crown Law to work together on legal advice for schools.

The idea is to help principals be better prepared if a dispute escalates to the courts.

Principal of Wellington College Roger Moses, who has been in the job for 20 years, welcomed the support from Crown Law.

Over those two decades, he said he had seen changes in the way parents engaged with schools, and had noticed families were much quicker to challenge the principal's authority.

He said a head teacher needed more strings to their bow than just education.

"The days of the principal just being concerned with teaching and learning are far gone.

"I think increasingly our time is taken up with, I guess, putting out fires, the potential legal actions that parents or students may take against you, you just have to be very very careful," he said.

Mr Moses said wherever students were involved in extra-curricular activities, the incidents of parents challenging decisions was becoming widespread.

He said it was sad that there was a need for advice from Crown Law - but it had become absolutely imperative.

"It's really important that there are clear guidelines under which we operate, so that we're not having to necessarily take legal advice when every situation arises," he said.

Principal of Auckland's Rangitoto College David Hodge agreed.

He said high profile cases in the media, including a judge forcing St Bede's College in Christchurch to reinstate two of its rowers, had made it critical for schools to have good legal advice.

"The St Bedes case has really left the jurisdiction of schools to in fact enforce their own rules and regulations right up in the air, and until we get some clarity around that, parents will feel that everything's negotiable and up for debate," he said.

Another high profile case was Hastings student, Lucan Battison, who won the right to keep his long hair, after being suspended for refusing to cut it.

An Auckland lawyer specialising in education law John Hannan said the Bill of Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child were key factors in that case.

But a move away from the courts' traditional reluctance to intervene in school matters, was also important, he said.

"Generally there's been a willingness at the courts to look at what decisions schools are making, and to not be prepared to have the deference to the authority of the school management and principal that they may once have had," Mr Hannan said.

He said there was a more litigious mood amongst parents and schools simply did not have the resources to deal with it.

But he said when the advice from Crown Law was issued to principals it would be a huge help and make schools less vulnerable to legal action in the future.

School principals call for help

President of the Principals Federation Denise Torrey said principals' work had become so complicated they need special advisers to help them.

The Education Ministry has paid for advisers in Canterbury and the Far North, but the federation wants it to fund more.

Ms Torrey said the job of principal had become very complex, and many are quitting because of the stress.

She said she hopes the Ministry would fund more positions soon.

The ministry said it would evaluate the impact of the adviser appointed in Tai Tokerau before it made any decisions.

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