Suspension scenario

  • 9th July 2024

Anthony Longden, a consultant at PR firm Alder, explores a hypothetical case involving the treatment of a pupil accused of bullying


A pupil has been suspended after multiple allegations of bullying, including serious physical assault and mental humiliation. The school’s safeguarding procedures were engaged as soon as the incident came to light, and the appropriate authorities – including the police – are investigating. There are several witnesses to the assaults, and it’s clear that exclusion, and even an appearance in court, may follow.

The boy’s parents have reacted very badly and don’t accept the allegations at all, claiming in emails to the head and in round-robin emails to other parents that their son has been the victim of systematic bullying himself and is being unfairly singled out. They have hinted that they will go to the press if the “injustice” against their son continues. Given the profile of the school and the identity of the parents (who are prominent fundraisers for a political party), this threat cannot be discounted.

They have refused to meet the head or to provide any evidence about their own claims (though they say it is damning about the involvement of two other boys).

The parents send increasingly hostile emails about the head and the senior leadership team to other parents. There is discussion on a WhatsApp group, but so far nothing has appeared on Twitter. Opinion remains divided among the parent group about who is telling the truth, and increasing numbers of parents from the relevant year group are contacting the head with a variety of concerns.

The school contacted both the police and children’s services to make them aware of the developments, but apart from acknowledging the communication, the head has heard nothing further from them.

How should you react?

Option 1

Explain via email to parents who have contacted you that the official investigation has to be left to run its course, repeating this line where necessary, and allow things to quieten down naturally.

Option 2

Firmly warn the alleged bully’s parents that they must cease all discussion and speculation on WhatsApp and via email because it is undermining the investigation, and warn them that they may well face legal action if they persist. Contact the authorities and urge them to intervene as a matter of urgency, and if the parents don’t cease their activities, send them a legal letter to say you will take formal action if they continue.

Option 3

Prepare for media attention by drafting a holding statement and Q&A document, and changing your social and digital media monitoring settings so they capture different keywords and send you alerts in real-time. Convene your crisis communications committee and ensure it meets regularly as things unfold.

Option 4

Keep the offer of a meeting with the alleged bully’s parents open. Invite other parents to meet you to discuss their concerns. Follow-up with a letter confirming what was discussed in the meeting. Consider writing to all parents in the year group, informing them of the situation in outline, and reassuring them that it is being swiftly and appropriately dealt with. Conduct a confidential briefing with staff.

Option 5

Write a school-wide letter to all parents, explaining the situation in outline, reminding them of the need to let the investigation take its course.

Which is the best option?

Option 1: send an email

With such a strength of feeling, this risks being too passive and may inflame the situation by appearing to be too detached. However, there is certainly merit in reminding people about the constraints you are operating under and the fact they need to take care not to undermine official investigations, since these things are often forgotten in the heat of the moment. If you start with this approach you will need to bear in mind that you may quickly need to escalate your response.

Option 2: warn the parents

While these may be valid points, taking this course could come across as heavy-handed and defensive. Informing the relevant authorities of what’s going on is sensible since it’s their responsibility to protect the integrity of their investigations, but in some cases their speed of response can lag significantly behind the pace of events, and you may need to send the boy’s parents a firm letter of your own.

Option 3: draft a statement

This is fine as far as it goes, but doesn’t amount to a full strategic response. It is advisable to prepare for media attention, even if the risks are relatively low, because modern journalism moves at such a fast pace that you will have little time to react if you are not properly prepared. You don’t want to be on the back foot from the start.

Option 4: hold a meeting

Even given the limitations on what you can say, the offer of face-to-face meetings can quickly change the dynamics of these situations and help defuse tension. However, you will need to be very well prepared with ‘lines to take’ given the constraints of the official investigations. Writing to the parents of the year group is a sensible step if rumour and speculation about the situation continue. Staff should be briefed so that they can refer any queries directly to the head, and urged to discourage any discussion they encounter.

Option 5: send a letter

It will be better to keep discussion of this matter to as small a group of people as possible, but you may have to issue wider communications if widespread discussion looks inevitable, perhaps as a result of media attention. An all-parent communication should not, however, be your first step.

Lessons learned

  • Never lose sight of the fundamental motivation of people in circumstances like these, even when their behaviour is unreasonable or erratic. The reaction of the alleged bully’s parents is by no means unusual – they are channelling their shock, dismay, anger and, probably, embarrassment into lashing out. The school is the obvious target for their ire, and it is crucially important that it maintains a calm, authoritative and consistent approach in dealing with them. Keep lines of communication open, even if offers are repeatedly rebuffed.
  • Ensure your response is proportionate. You can always escalate your response according to developments, and there is therefore no need to start with a full public discussion about the matter.
  • Don’t allow the limitations of a live investigation to discourage you from communicating. Even in situations where you cannot say much, it’s important to explain precisely why this is. Done promptly and clearly, it can often serve to provide the degree of reassurance parents need in the early stages.
  • Monitor what’s being said about the matter carefully, but in no circumstances engage directly on social media. Report all examples directly to the investigating authorities – they are the appropriate route for countering material that risks undermining the process. While it does occasionally happen, social media commentary at such times is rarer than many people imagine.
  • The use of WhatsApp groups should not unsettle you unduly. These are classic ‘echo chambers’, essentially a discrete group of people talking among themselves in a closed forum. It is therefore self-contained. While you may not know the precise details, school communications through the normal channels remain the best means of countering this kind of activity.
  • Although tensions are high, there is limited news value in this situation, dampened further by the range of reporting restrictions relating to cases involving children. Nevertheless, it’s always advisable to plan ahead with reactive media statements. These should only be issued in response to a direct enquiry from a journalist, and will merely confirm the school acted swiftly and responsibly in line with its safeguarding procedures as soon as it learned of the situation, that the matter is being investigated, and the school cannot therefore comment further at this stage.

Anthony Longden

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