In Part 1, I shared with you a list of reminders to keep at the ready to help you maintain confidentially and integrity of the people and investigatory processes during a school emergency while communicating to stakeholders in a timely and accurate manner. In this article, I am providing 6 strategies for you to use when communicating during a school crisis. Make sure to read Part 1 of this series to ensure a complete picture for planning purposes.
Emergency Communication Procedures
- Develop a Fact Sheet
Assign a school Emergency Response team member to record times, decisions and actions taken during the event, thus creating a fact sheet. This is imperative. As you move through the mental, physical, and emotional stages of a crisis, large or small, it is difficult to precisely recollect the specifics and sequencing of events. Regardless of position, assign someone to take down the time and actions being taken at very short intervals. (Eg. 8:16 student x reported to Ms. Murphy that a bomb threat was written in the 2nd floor boys’ bathroom; 8:18 AM Ms. Murphy informed Principal Johnson via phone; 8:19 AM Principal Johnson did . . .
It may seem like overkill, but you cannot control the communication if you do not understand the facts. In my experience as principal and superintendent, these notes were the foundation of communications to students, parents, staff, central administration, and public officials. They have also served as the basis for press releases, press conferences, arbitration hearings, and court proceedings. Get them down and get them right. Review with your team as part of the post crisis process.
- Contact Superintendent’s Office
Designate someone to call/text the superintendent’s office until the communication is confirmed to alert him/her of the situation. Know who has the authority to act on the superintendent’s behalf if he/she is not available. Continuous
- Maintain Continuous Contact with Superintendent’s Office
Just as you are responsible for everything that happens in your building, your superintendent is responsible for everything that happens in the district. If things go awry, the superintendent will be the one answering the questions. He/she also has access to a larger pool
- Common Interim Message
Provide secretaries or anyone answering a phone, door or email with a brief, written explanation during the event. The message may change after the event when more detail is available. It provides reassurance to your office staff that they are giving the right message to parents as well as providing you with confidence that none of the things to remember above are being compromised. Parents want to know: there is something happening in the building; we are aware and taking the appropriate action; and most importantly, your children are safe.
- Match Your Message to Your Audience
Develop a during and/or post event message(s) with school Emergency Response team taking into consideration all items in #3 above. Messages may vary for different groups (a quick all-call to students thanking them for cooperation; email to staff with more detail; summary phone call/email to parents; incident report for Superintendent).
- Review/Implement Communication
Go over the communication plan with the Superintendent, including content and delivery. Again, he/she ultimately owns it. Deliver the communication as agreed on with Superintendent.
It bears repeating that each crisis is its own unique event. You cannot be prepared for everything. Even the same type of crisis can elicit a difference response from stakeholders a month later as circumstances and opinions are continuously changing. But you can control the checks and balances that you go through before you (or the person in charge if you are not in the building) shares any information with anyone. If you have an emergency communication plan in your school and district, review it. If you do not have such a plan, bring it up at your next administrative meeting. It could save you and school community from unnecessary trauma and confusion.