The crisis is over. The review of our response isn’t.
The time for reflection is not while you’re in the midst of your school’s crisis response. “No fake,” you’re probably thinking. “This is your new learning?” Well, for me, it sort of is. As some of the elements were very different this time around for us, and I know I shouldn’t just brush them aside without thinking them over. Much has changed since Columbine and 9/11.
I also know that many of you have developed, assessed, and carried out your own crisis responses on different occasions within your own school community. Your insights are invaluable. Please feel free to share your comments and experiences as well. Just email me at: email@example.com. We can all keep learning from each other.
Here’s what happened in my school district on Friday, December 21 – our last school day before the holiday break.
As we headed into our final school day for 2012 (right before the holiday break), most of our central office administrators and principals were monitoring school absences due to the flu and colds and keeping our unbelieving skeptical eyes on all of the hullaballoo over the Mayan prophesy. We knew folks were chattering away more than normal, and we were following the news reports and all, but this end-of-the-world mania seemed incredibly farfetched. How could it possibly affect our schools? (It wasn’t something we put on our district website calendar, that’s for sure.)
Anyway, as Murphy’s law would dictate (and I don’t mess with this Murphy guy – even the Mayans would envy his impact!), we began school on this final Friday experiencing high swirling winds, wet snow, and a bitter wind chill. This was in stark contrast to the previous day, which was dry and 20 degrees warmer. Of course, fool that I am, I left my winter coat and gloves at home. And this still embarrasses me when I think about it.
Friday actually began well, very much like an enhanced, but normal school day. Students and teachers looked forward to their planned holiday celebrations and most of our offices had inviting trays of cookies and candy. You’re a school communicator. You know the festive school atmosphere I’m describing. A crisis was not on anyone’s radar.
At mid-morning, though, one of our K-7 schools (700 students) experienced a total loss of power due to trees falling on the power lines. The emergency lights in the school kept things from becoming pitch black, but reports from the power company told us that power was a long way from being restored. We undertook plans to bus the students and staff over to our high school, less than 1/2 mile away.
Fortunately, our superintendent was already at the K-7 school for a meeting. While he teamed up with the principal there, we created a robo-call phone message to parents informing them about the situation. The message also told the K-7 parents they could take their students home before 12:30 p.m. or wait until the students returned from the high school for their normal 3 p.m. dismissal from their school. Along with the robo-call, we used the local radio station, emails to all school staff, our automated call-in message lines, and our website to get the word out. Of course, many of our K-7 students had their own cell phones with them and we allowed their use to call their parents.
So far, so good. At 12:30 pm, as the remaining K-7 students, staff, and the superintendent departed on the buses for the high school, things were rolling along as planned. While not the greatest day in the history of our district, all was well. Good enough.
Things settled down quickly at the school. The buses were gone and there were only a few parents at the K-7 school who were still packing up their students into their cars. And then unbelievably, a man in full winter garb wearing a ski mask pulled down over his face (not suspicious given the horrible weather) approached one of our young moms standing right by her car and murmered that this was a robbery.
The school’s power outage suddenly became the least of our problems.
The mom was understandably frightened and began screaming. Other adults noticed the scene and called the police. The man immediately ran away, but in the general direction of the high school. The police arrived within minutes and began their search for the man, while simultaneously notifying the high school to go into a total lock-down. What began as a power outage for 700 students and the staff at a K-7 school earlier was now a scarier situation . . . as these folks now were lock-downed at the high school along with 1100 high school students and their teachers. (Yes, Virginia, a bad day can get worse.)
Because our superintendent and facilities director were part of the K-7 bus convey to the high school, they were now locked into classrooms with students and staff there as well. The superintendent kept in contact with me using his cell phone.
Back at the K-7 school, more police cars began showing up at the practically empty building (just a few office staff remained) to provide support in tracking down the would-be robber. The heightened use of of police radios alerted the media who were monitoring scanners and they began calling. The superintendent asked me to handle communications from outside of the K-7 school.
Luckily, as I pulled up in front the K-7 school at 12:45 pm, I saw that the media had not yet arrived. I also recognized several of the officers on the scene. They allowed me to talk to the mom while she was giving her statement to them. She was shaken, but stated time and time again that she did not see a weapon of any kind; that she just felt unnerved and threatened.
After the police tracking dogs sniffed away without much success and the detectives diagramed the man’s footprints in the snow, the lead officer at the K-7 school was confident that the suspect had jumped into a car parked in the school lot and escaped. But since the lead officer couldn’t be 100% sure, he instructed his team to search the K-7 school completely before scaling back the operations and calling off the lock-down at the high school.
Now the media arrived . . . just in time for them to film the squad of officers entering the K-7 school to begin their precautionary search.
While everyone was safe (with police now on the scene at both schools), the fact that the authorities could not state with 100% certainty that everything was fine gave the media enough of a window to get a “good story.” You can guess the scrolling headlines: High school locked-down. Suspect on the run. Officers searching K-7 school for other suspects. Was there a weapon? Was there not? No one knows. You get the idea. But this was the news now worrying our parents.
It was about 1:20 pm, and whew-boy, things were getting a little frantic. I was standing outside of the K-7 school in weather conditions I hadn’t dressed for and feeling pretty dumb. Although I’ve learned to accept (like you have) that “anything can happen here or anywhere,” I felt foolish in realizing that I started my day as the district’s “experienced” communications coordinator blindly assuming that “while anything could happen . . . it just won’t happen TODAY.” Wrong! Everything was happening all around me and I simply wasn’t ready. I deserved to be shivering and cold.
Lots to learn and re-learn (at least for me!)
Lesson learned #1: Being ready for a potential crisis begins before you leave home in the morning. I was improperly dressed for the weather. I did not have a coat and gloves in my car, and in fact, my car’s gas gauge showed a near empty status. All I had in my trunk were school sign letters, some stacks of old athletic programs, a few gifts I was hiding from my wife until Christmas, and a Homecoming 2012 vinyl banner. My complacency turned me into Barney Fife, school communicator.
Lesson learned #2: I’ve always nurtured good working relationships with our city’s police officers, and in this case, I was glad that they allowed me access to the mom who was accosted. I was then able to emphatically state first-hand to the media that no weapon of any kind was seen or used in the brief robbery attempt. In fact, all of our school safety precautions were set in motion by a menacing verbal threat, nothing more. And believe me, the media did not want to let go of this bone easily.
Lesson learned #3: Our staff and students were wonderful. They had practiced their drills and it showed. They were calm and flexible. This wasn’t the case for a number of parents who were getting their news in media snippets and reacting accordingly. For example, some K-7 parents wanted to pull their kids out of the locked-down high school, which, of course, we wouldn’t allow. But I realize now that we need to work on even more ways to inform parents ahead of time about what communications they can turn to and count on when a crisis touches our school family. My superintendent has asked for a full communications review. I have some suggested improvements to discuss and I hope to share these later with you later. I’m still pulling some costs together.
Lesson learned #4: We all know that the media will run with whatever story they have at the moment and then (when corrected) provide updates later. They’re pressed for time, deadlines, and “breaking news.” We’re not. We focus on school safety first, and only after doing all that we can in this regard, do we then try to report out accurate information. In talking to some parents, though, I could tell that they expected us to match the media’s speed of reporting, which I don’t believe is possible. We have a higher benchmark; a benchmark that is not grounded in tossing about speculations and guesses. Again, I see the need to better remind parents that our focus during every crisis will always be on safety first, and only after having a firm grip on the facts, will we begin providing public information. They need to know this upfront. We shouldn’t be expected to participate on the media’s fast track to a compelling storyline. Our school family is better served when we exert a more thoughtful “purposeful pace.” Parents need to know this.
Lesson learned #5: Our students and teachers reminded me of the positive results of the safety drills (practice-practice-practice). Thank you to NSPRA and our regional groups for helping all of us keep our communications priorities straight in highly stressful times, too. The on-going training workshops work. Screw-ups like me are proof. Despite looking like I had just been pulled out of a frozen lake, I was able to go on camera and stay on track. A) Everyone is safe. B) The precautions we are taking are the right ones. C) Here’s what we are asking parents to do. (Rinse and repeat.)
Lesson learned #6: Taking a look at what communications strategies will help us better maintain our own pace (instead of the media’s mad dash) will also help us identify other places that people should go to for accurate school information during a crisis. For example, many of the lock-downed high school students were pulling up media blurbs and speculations on their iPads or smart phones. When they heard that a potential armed suspect was on foot and headed in their direction or that the K-7 school was being searched for other suspects, they couldn’t refrain from raising everyone’s anxiety levels unnecessarily. We’re now exploring ways to provide a more credible, official informational sources for mobile devise users to access, including our student iPad users. They won’t have the media’s speed or sensationalism, but I think everyone will welcome this.
Lesson learned #7: Once again, this “a-ha” is an extension of the value of preparedness and the total lack of anything useful in my trunk or back seat. What supplies (if any) should we stock and maintain in case we need them during a power outage, lock-down, or some other crisis? Should we have had more flashlights? Pens and clipboards? Water? Kleenex? Yes, we have first aid kits, but all kinds of items now seem essential in retrospect. But not everything is practical or do-able, though. Our review will include a discussion about this.
Lesson learned #8: After talking at length on Friday with the victim (the mom) at the K-7 school, I was able to share some family information with my superintendent. I did this thinking that a follow-up contact from him would be a nice courtesy. Come to find out it would have an even greater value. As the superintendent began talking with her later, she told him that she questioned whether she should keep her children enrolled in our schools. She simply couldn’t envision returning to the crisis scene with her children when classes started back up in January. She was still quite shaken. The superintendent communicated with the mom several times over the holiday break and then met her and her kids personally at the K-7 school on the first day that classes resumed. The effort made a difference.
In closing: No surprise for you here. Despite the bells, the whistles, the strategies, the tech stuff, checklists, and the shoulda-woulda-couldas – it’s still all about building trust and relationships. (Before -During – After) You’re on this, I know.
Thanks for your support. And keep sharing. I’ve still got a lot to learn.
Tom Page, SCN managing editor