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Don’t Let Your Emergency Response Work Be Overshadowed by Poor Communication! Part 1

Communication is the key to ensuring the safety of students and staff, coordinating with first responders, and reassuring frightened families with concise, accurate, and timely information during a school emergency.    Building administrators typically have well-designed and well-rehearsed response actions and protocols for specific types of situations.   However, too frequently, there thoughtful and detailed work gets overshadowed, or worse maligned, by poor communication planning.   

At 11:50 AM, a 4th grade student breaks his leg diving for a football during lunch recess.  The local police and fire arrive on the scene at 11:56 AM. At 12:17 PM there is a Facebook post saying that the school is surrounded by police and fire vehicles and it looks serious.   By 12:35 PM, 19 people responded to the original post speculating on the nature of the situation.   At 3:45 PM the building principal reads an online article asserting the following: parents were furious over the lack of communication from the school while their children were potentially in danger; the superintendent was caught off guard by the situation and will review the principal’s actions; and that the principal sent out a school community message regarding the emergency personnel on campus but only after she received dozens (4 by her count) of calls and emails from parents.  As the principal finished reading the article and half of the 28 comments from the community including parents, teachers, school alumni, town officials, and some random person from out of state, she tried to refocus her attention to refining her presentation on for the following day’s staff professional development.  Unable to remove the distraction of the afternoon’s events from her mind, she quietly contemplated leaving school administration.

Over my 28 years in education as a classroom teacher, building administrator, and central office administrator, I have continuously prioritized the safety of the people in my charge.  The spring of my first year as an administrator (elementary assistant principal) coincided with the massacre of 15 students and staff at Columbine High School in Colorado. It was then that I fully appreciated the weight of my responsibility as a school administrator.

Since that time, I have spent years working with local and state first responders designing, implementing, and revising emergency response systems for the schools and districts under my care.  During this time, the one area that I find gets the least amount of attention is the one that can potentially cause the most the damage.  That is the area of emergency communication.

Clearly and accurately communicating with the wide variety of stakeholders that make up a school community can be difficult, even under ideal conditions.  With the anxiety and fear invoked by the perceived, potential, or real threat toward members of that school community, as well as the accompanying time and legal constraints, the degree of difficulty of providing the appropriate level of communication, through the right vehicles in the right timeframe, rises exponentially.   Add in the complexity of the instant communication capacity from just about everyone involved and now you have the proverbial game of telephone, cyber-style, potentially impacting student and staff safety, student and staff confidentiality, and potential criminal investigations.

Fortunately, through my experience, I have found that schools can create sound protocols on which to rely during an emergency.  As each real-life school emergency is unique unto itself, having the basic steps down will allow you to focus yourself and your team on adapting to the immediate situation at hand and not lose precious time deciding how to start.

Below are a few pieces that I have found to be integral parts to any building emergency communication plan.

Principal’s Purpose

If you are the principal, your first order of business is to factually assess the situation to determine whether or not a communications response is warranted.  If you decide communication is warranted, keep this list of reminders at the ready to re-center your focus on protecting your students and staff in the middle of potential chaos:

  • Assign no attributes/blame
  • Communicate facts
  • Identify constituencies
  • Meet FERPA requirements
  • Protect integrity of investigations
  • Restore order and confidence
  • Be frequent and timely as situation dictates
  • Minimize rumors

By reviewing these reminders and having them available, you can be confident that while in the midst of an unexpected event and subsequent multiple and varied reactions, your emergency communication will not inflict unnecessary harm to students, staff, the community, and yourself.  In part two, I will reveal six strategies for creating an emergency communication plan to assist you in reassuring families with concise, accurate, and timely information during a school emergency.