Parents are responsible for a quarter of the online abuse of teachers with one headmistress left feeling suicidal after she became the target of a parent’s internet hate campaign, a study has found.
By Matt Warman, Consumer Technology Editor
10:10AM BST 15 Aug 2011
Teachers are increasingly being targeted by parents on Facebook and Twitter who see them as “fair game for abuse”, according to Plymouth University research.
One headmistress suffered a breakdown and was left feeling suicidal after facing a year-long barrage of cyber abuse from a parent using social media sites.
Another teacher was questioned by the police and subsequently had to be treated for depression and sucidial thoughts by a psychologist.
Worryingly, one teacher said “we just have to live with it”. An abusive blog was regarded as “the extension of the school gate”. The parent who ran it “did not see much wrong with what he was doing”, Prof Andrew Phippen said.
Cyber bullying of children has been well documented but now there is a trend which is spreading to adults.
One in three teachers has been the victim of online bullying, or knows a colleague who has, and a quarter of that abuse has been by parents. More than one in ten also say that they have been bullied by fellow members of staff.
Professor Phippen said: “Some parents view teachers as fair game for abuse.
“They use online technologies to hide behind while posting lies and abuse about their chosen victim.
“It seems to be a subset of the population, the teacher is no longer viewed as someone who should be supported in developing their child’s education, but a person whom it is acceptable to abuse if they dislike what is happening in the classroom.”
Websites such as RateMyTeacher.com, as well as Facebook and Google groups, have been used by parents and pupils to mount what Prof Phippen calls sustained campaigns. Despite complaints, in many cases the abuse is public and never removed becuase it falls “between what is illegal and what is socially acceptable”, he said. While aggressive and defamatory comments were removed, the research found it was unclear where sites drew a line between “nasty” and “abusive”.
An anonymous headteacher was interviewed by Prof Phippen and she described a campaign of abuse by a parent at her school who used a Google group to post lies about her and her school.
She told researchers: “I eventually had a mini breakdown in the summer holiday needing an emergency doctor to be called out as I had become suicidal.”
In 70 per cent of cases, teachers said senior management offered little or no useful help, and that unions and the police were unable to resolve problems.
Researchers surveyed 377 professionals and analysed 35 helpline cases.
Of those, 35% said that either they, or their colleagues, had been subjected to some form of online abuse involving postings on Facebook or Twitter.
Most of the abuse came from pupils but in 26% of cases it was parents who played a role – and parents also abused some pupils.
Prof Phippen added: “Given the potential impact of thise abuse we would call on all head teachers and boards of governors to take these matters very seriously and have a zero tolerance approach to the abuse of their staff.
“Schools should not be afraid to involve the police if they feel harassment is occurring.”
Cllr Nicky Wildy, Labour’s spokeswoman on education in Plymouth, said:”Bullying of any kind is not acceptable.”
The former teacher added: “Some teachers are more vulnerable than others, for example the newly qualified or those who are less confident.”
One anonymous teacher told Prof Phippen that “the online environment is potentially a massive threat to professional identity, both from those who might abuse and professionals themselves who might not use social networking sites with due diligence”.
A helpline has been set up to help teachers facing cyber bullying – email email@example.com.