Hartburn Primary headteacher warns parents to watch their language following Facebook threats to teacher

Darlington and Stockton Times: Headteacher Tom Gittins at Hartburn Primary School, Stockton Headteacher Tom Gittins at Hartburn Primary School, Stockton

THREATS made to a teacher on Facebook have prompted a headmaster to send home a letter warning parents that they could face legal action for defamation.

Following abusive comments on the website, Tom Gittins, headteacher of Hartburn Primary in Stockton, has urged parents to consider carefully what they say on the internet.

In a letter to parents, he wrote that accounts could be blocked or deleted and legal action could be considered if ‘derogatory’ and ‘threatening’ remarks are repeated or not removed.

He has taken action after a mother posted “God help that teacher at half past three” followed by icons of guns, swords and hammers on her personal page.

It had no privacy settings so the slurs could be viewed by anyone logged onto the social networking site.

Subsequent comments made by friends named and targeted the teacher with abusive language.

Mr Gittins told The Northern Echo: “I would say that if you have a problem with school come in and sort it out then let it go.

“If you are still not happy we have a complaints procedure that’s well versed, then you could speak to the local authority and after that, Ofsted.

“We have a legal responsibility for staff’s safety at work so the local authority advised that we send out a letter."

Mr Gittins said the vast majority of parents had supported his stance. “People have said the school’s Facebook page is there to promote all that’s celebratory about the school, not have a cheap pop at somebody."

The school, which recently achieved a ‘Good’ Ofsted report has more than 500 pupils on its roll.

“It’s quite sad because we expect the parents to be the guardians and the champions of their own children but some are using this foul and abusive language," he added. "It’s not good, is it?"

As the branch secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, Mr Gittins said teachers across the region were well aware that they were open to criticism.

"This is a big issue in primaries as well as secondaries where pupils can bring in phones, and it’s not getting any better despite schools’ best efforts."

Defamation is defined as “Any intentionally false communication, either written or spoken, that harms a person’s reputation; decreases the respect, regard, or confidence in which a person is held; or induces disparaging, hostile, or disagreeable opinions or feelings against a person”.

All the major social networking sites have a policy or procedure in place for removing content, although this is carried out at their own discretion.

Offenders could be prosecuted under laws including the Harassment Act 1997 and the Malicious Communications Act 1998.

Simon Finch, education e-safety expert from Northern Grid for learning said it is no more acceptable to harass and defame online than it is face to face.

“There are many examples of students and parents creating ‘hate’ pages and engaging in conversations about teachers, other parents and other people’s children,” he said.

“Facebook is not private and these comments are in the public domain. As such, schools and individuals are within their rights to involve the police.”

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