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, 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 includes eMail etiquette for parents in its 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, the district’s director of instructional technology and information systems.

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

“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 “I’m positive upwards of 90 percent of parents know what is proper and what isn’t,” he said.

Association of Independent Maryland Schools

Georgetown Day School

Skaneateles Central School District