Concerned that parents otherwise might use eMail to harass teachers, officials at the exclusive Georgetown Day School (GDS) in Washington, D.C., have issued a code of conduct for parents to use when contacting teachers by computer.

“For matters of controversy, for matters of real distress, [eMail] is not a good device,” said Peter Branch, head of GDS.

“When you’ve got a really serious matter that is upsetting the child or the parent, you should contact the teacher directly,” Branch said. “A hostile eMail is only going to exacerbate the situation and make the teacher defensive.”

Parents have been able to eMail GDS teachers for the past two years. The school makes teachers’ eMail addresses, as well as their voice mail telephone numbers, available to students’ parents.

GDS officials decided to add a policy this year to clarify how eMail and voice mail should be used because of incidents that occurred last year.

“There have been some parents who have barraged a teacher with multiple eMails to the point that it wasn’t a solution, it was harassment,” Branch said.

Communication was no longer occurring about a particular disagreement, he said. “It made the teacher feel under siege and the parent feel grieved.”

In an effort to stop angry parents from blasting off heated messages to their children’s teachers, GDS dedicated a page in its “Parent/Student Handbook 2000-2001” to addressing proper eMail and voice mail etiquette for parents.

Besides explaining the service and where to find teachers’ eMail addresses and phone numbers, the handbook reads, “It should be noted that expectations of civility in communications at GSD are the same for eMail and voice mail as for face-to-face communication. Respect for one another should be evident in tone and language as well as content.

“Unfortunately, eMail does not convey tone and affect and may cause the message to seem abrupt or confrontational when used in haste or anger. Therefore, issues of significant concern are best left to a personal meeting, which the use of eMail or voice mail can facilitate.”

Ron Goldblatt, executive director of the Association of Independent Maryland Schools (AIMS), said that while most parents are wonderful and appropriately involved and concerned, “there is a small percentage of parents that are becoming hard to deal with. They’re angry.”

The association, of which GDS is a member, has crafted a delicately worded, two-page document for parents outlining appropriate procedures for parent-school communications. It doesn’t address modes of communication, but it does stipulate that parents be cordial.

The document reminds parents that children “mature by modeling adult working relationships based upon civility, honesty, and respect.”

“Schools have been very good and sincere about inviting parents to join and share in educating their children,” Goldblatt said. “What they haven’t been good at is defining the limits. And that’s what we have done here.”

Goldblatt said he doesn’t think lack of civility starts with eMail. But he admits that eMail has contributed to the problem: “It’s a fairly anonymous form of communication. People can quickly fire one off in a moment of anger.”

Skaneateles Central School District in New York also includes eMail etiquette for parents in the district’s newsletter. The newsletter reminds parents not to write anything they wouldn’t want published and warns them not to let it replace face-to-face contact.

“I do feel it is necessary to spell out the acceptable uses of any new technology we make available to parents, teachers, and staff,” said Paul E. Blair, director of instructional technology and information systems at Skaneateles Central School.

But some educators think giving parents a code of conduct for eMail or voice mail is impractical.

“We don’t give parents guidelines for using their own eMail accounts or for leaving our teachers voice mail. Any code of conduct would be difficult, if not impossible, to enforce,” said Charlie Reseigner, technology director at Pennsylvania’s Penn Manor School District.

“What would we do if they sent us a nasty voice mail—take away the parents’ home phone? If we get abusive or offensive eMail, we would simply filter or block any incoming mail from that person’s eMail address.”

Brad Loveland, assistant principal at Bowie Elementary School in Bowie, Texas, said he is training his teachers how to manage their eMail to avoid problems from occurring.

“Parents are using their own technology, and we really don’t have control over what is not here,” said Loveland. “That is one reason why I am training my staff on how to use filters and [file] folders.”

He said his school hasn’t had any problems yet, and by training his staff, he hopes there won’t be any in the future.

Despite how easy it is to send abrupt or thoughtless messages, many districts say they’ve had only good experiences communicating with parents via eMail or voice mail.

“Our experiences with both eMail and voice mail have been very positive,” said David A. Smith, principal of McMillan Elementary School in Murray, Utah. “Parents have used it judiciously. In fact, eMail has increased the level of communication for many of our parents, who see it as an easy and quick way to reach the teacher without interrupting.”

“I’ve heard some teachers commenting that a couple of parents take up more time than they think is warranted asking about their child’s progress or lack thereof,” said Kyle Hutson, director of technology for the Rock Creek School District in Kansas. But Hutson said he doesn’t think a code of conduct for parents is necessary.

“I’m positive upwards of 90 percent of parents know what is proper and what isn’t. As we currently have no such guidelines, we’re still in a reactive rather than proactive mode,” he said.

Links:

Association of Independent Maryland Schools
http://www.aimsmd.org

Georgetown Day School
http://www.gds.org

Skaneateles Central School District
http://scs.cnyric.org

Penn Manor School District
http://www.pmsd.k12.pa.us

Bowie Elementary School
http://198.214.170.15/bwmain/index.html

Rock Creek School District
http://rockcreek.k12.ks.us