Last Updated on August 24, 2023 by Michelle Ball
By Michelle Ball, Sacramento California Expulsion, Special Education, sports/CIF, College, Education and School Attorney/Lawyer for Students since 1995
Have you ever felt gaslighted by a school? You know, the school staff say one thing, but deny it later? Or, they flat lie about something? Unfortunately, this sort of deceptive conduct, to make parents feel like they are the ones who are confused (aka gaslighting), is not uncommon in California schools.
Pull Back the Curtain, Dorothy
Sometimes when the curtain is pulled back on schools to reveal the truth (as in “The Wizard of Oz” on the Great and Powerful Oz), parents’ eyes are suddenly opened. They learn that there is no brilliant or scary Wizard running things. There are just power hungry people pulling strings to dominate the unenlightened masses.
School staff exude power like the Great and Powerful Oz, to influence parents’ decisions, to control their kids, and to make parents go away. Staff often prefer parents just leave them alone so they can run the kingdom. Unfortunately, that kingdom controls minor students: their safety, futures and ultimately, their lives.
I have for decades seen school staff knowingly mislead and confuse parents. This is able to occur due to their power position, as well as society’s perception of school officials as people who care about students, who “know best” and who are wise. Sadly, the deceptions which can occur due to our often blind trust in school officials, may harm parent participation and knowledge, and can have terrible results for students.
Fiction and Betrayal by Schools
Parents need to realize that the image of schools as uniformly decent, caring, helping folks etc. can definitely be true (if it weren’t we would really be in trouble). However, this golden image can also be fiction. No, I am not a cynic, and yes there are tens of thousands of wonderful, caring, thoughtful employees in schools who don’t deceive parents. However, after dealing with schools since the mid-1990s, I have seen a bit of the dark side of schools.
The betrayal I hear in parents’ voices when they find out they were lied to, or when they finally learn that even the best schools can be deceptive and uncaring, is truly depressing. Often this realization comes only when parents face something terrible, such as an expulsion hearing or a long-term special education dispute. Sometimes this understanding comes too late.
Examples of Gaslighting in Schools
The term “gaslighting” did not exist when I was a kid. However, it is a useful word that defines so much about our schools.
If you are not familiar, “gaslighting” it is defined as two things per Merriam-Webster:
- psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator
- the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage
Both of these situations exist in schools.
Long term manipulations may come from miscommunications to parents, failing to provide parents information, ignoring parents’ valid input and questions, excluding parents via tricky methods (exclusion from email lists), or even via a false picture created of a school which makes parents dependent.
An example of the second one could be seen in schools directly lying to parents to get them to not seek legal counsel or about their rights. Both can be extremely damaging.
There are many areas in schools where gaslighting occurs, and it leads to some bizarre and unexpected situations.
Below, I list some examples of gaslighting to harm parents, to outside agencies, and to protect staff.
Gaslighting to Harm Parents
School staff can gaslight parents to hurt them or lessen their school access. They can even involve outside agencies or try to exclude one parent, such as in a divorce. None of these actions are good for parents, for example:
Teachers or administrators twist valid parent communications into alleged “threats” to the school. They call the police on parents, who simply voiced their valid concerns passionately. Maybe the parents are thereafter banned from campus as being “disruptive.” In a private school setting, parent complaints may result in the student being kicked out of the school (but parents still have to foot the bill).
A divorced father with joint custody is told that no meetings are upcoming, despite a special education meeting approaching the next week, which the mother was invited to attend. The meeting goes on without the father’s knowledge or participation.
School staff spread poison about one parent, based on gossip by the other parent. The parent who was gossiped about is squeezed out of the school and treated as an enemy. Staff spread more harmful gossip.
Gaslighting By Falsely Reporting to Outside Agencies
Schools can also gaslight parents by lying about them to outside agencies, some of which can be very harmful, for example:
When a student has a long-term illness, and misses a lot of school, the school does not work with the parent. The family is never told about a possible chronic illness plan or a 504 Plan, which could help. Instead the school treats the family as if they are lying about the student’s illness. They threaten the family with arrest and refer them to the truancy board (SARB: School Attendance Review Board).
A teacher calls CPS (Child Protective Services) based on a bruise a student got on campus or with no reason at all. The school report is made not because the school thought the child had been abused, but because the teacher didn’t like a parents actions. After CPS arrives to the family’s home, they open a case, as they “have to,” but say they do not know why they were called.
A school reports a student’s threats to harm himself (a known disability manifestation for the student addressed in his special education plan), to the police instead of implementing the supports. The student is hauled off to be evaluated for an involuntary psychiatric hold.
Gaslighting to Protect Staff
It is very common for school staff to defend each other, lying to parents to protect staff, as part of a weird school clique, such as:
School or district staff investigating a teacher’s wrong skew the results. They falsify what happened and overlook the truth to mislead the student’s family and to try to protect the school.
Staff, being aware a teacher could be having a sexual relationship with a student, or that a student and teacher are spending inappropriate time together, look the other way. They say nothing to the student’s parents or the police. A school may even threaten students who report the suspected relationship.
When parents report strange activities between a teacher and their child, they are brushed off. The parents are made to feel as if they are in the wrong to be attacking the teacher. Sadly, the parents may be right but cease their questions, as the school’s gaslighting worked. The student’s abuse continues.
School staff pretend they did not see a fight despite school security video of them standing around watching. When a victim’s parents ask why no one intervened, office staff do not reveal that the staff watched the fight. Later, student videos posted online show the staff clearly standing around watching the student brawl. The staff are laughing and offer no help to the students hurting each other.
These situations are far far too common.
Luckily, parents seem to be waking up to the ridiculousness which can go on in California schools. I hope more parents realize what is going on, as the gaslighting in schools surely will continue as long as parents allow it.
Student lawyer Michelle Ball assists parents when confronting weird gaslighting and other situations in schools, to help them navigate and solve problems. As an attorney located in Sacramento, Michelle can reach across California to Loomis, Placerville, Elk Grove, Huntington Beach, and many other California towns.
Additional reading on Gaslighting: More Gaslighting In Schools: In Bullying, Grading and Records