Excerpted from a publication by the National School Public Relations Association.
For comprehensive crisis planning, NSPRA offers one of the most complete guides available to educators: The Complete Crisis Communication Manual for Schools.
Incidents of violence call for seasoned responses by school leaders
When tragedy hits, your schools need a sympathetic and authoritative spokesperson to reassure your community and staff that your school's leadership is handling the misfortune in an aggressive and appropriate fashion.
You need to instill confidence, as best as possible, that you, with the help of your total staff and community, will be doing everything possible to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. Often, leaders lose the confidence of their communities, not because of the crisis, but because of the way they handled the crisis.
As you are giving the media background information, it may be a good time to remind them that a tragedy is a reason many school districts have "zero tolerance" policies on weapons in schools.
Tell the truth even when you feel it may damage the district's reputation. Some reporters feel that the reporting of gun incidents in schools is less than truthful because a school or school district may fear being labeled as a violent or bad school.
Tell the truth and, in the same breath, tell them what you are doing to fix the problem. You don't want to cover up an incident. Once you lose your credibility, you have lost any chance of bringing everyone together to solve the problem.
Explain and make decisions about student and staff safety and well-being first. You have the right to limit media access, but make sure the media understand that you will be talking with them in a timely fashion at a certain time and place. Limit your comments to school issues. Don't get trapped into comments that should be answered by police officials. Seek the cooperation and insight of a police spokesperson before approaching the media. You want to avoid giving conflicting answers to the same question.
Key media messages
- This is not just a school problem. This is a societal problem that cannot be successfully addressed unless the entire community is involved. Prevention begins at home, where parents are responsible for teaching children to respect others and deal with problems effectively.
- Schools are still one of the safest places for children to be.
- Student safety is our top priority, and we take all threats seriously. The district has a strict policy on weapons (talk about your specific policy).
- Talk about programs the district has that deal with prevention: character education, conflict resolution, peer mediation.
Ten tips on crisis communications
- Be prepared to act rather than react. Have a plan in place and review it each year.
- Determine who is responsible for calling whom and under what circumstances.
- Identify a designated spokesperson. Establish a district chain of command and a school building chain of command.
- Prepare a list of emergency telephone numbers.
- Have a fact sheet with general information about the district ready to distribute to news media.
- Establish a hotline for information and rumor control.
- Identify a location for a crisis communication center.
- Plan for back-up communication equipment in case phones and public address systems fail.
- Prepare a statement that secretaries and receptionists can read to callers.
- Establish procedures for communicating during the crisis with parents, news media, students and staff.
In the first 30 minutes of a crisis
- Have the appropriate person handle the situation.
- Understand the circumstances, define the problem.
- Consider the options. Act decisively to ensure safety of students and staff and protection of property.
- Communicate with staff.
- Keep news media informed.
- Provide a fact sheet on the campus/district
- Solicit their help in disseminating important information to the community (i.e. evacuation plans, phone numbers for behavioral health services support, etc.)
- Update students periodically in classrooms. Avoid large group meetings.
- Send a letter home to parents at the end of the day explaining what occurred and what was done.
- Update your telephone hot-line message to include important information related to the incident and update it frequently.
- Post important information about the incident on district/school Web sites and update frequently.
- Get information to community through key communicators, parent leaders etc.
Crisis communications: preparing an effective response
Don't wait for a crisis to hit to prepare your communications plan. Responding effectively means having procedures in place that allow you to get information out to staff, parents, community and media as swiftly as possible. Advance planning and preparation also allows you to keep a cool head, monitor the crisis efficiently and respond effectively.
Engage the community
- Hold a town hall or community forum on school safety.
- Involve a cross section of community representatives, not just as participants, but also as a steering committee to plan the discussion. Consider collaborating with the Mayor's Office, City Council or Chamber of Commerce in sponsoring and promoting the town hall.
- Hold a series of small forums or study circles (30-50 participants) to facilitate a deliberative dialogue among community members.
- Conduct focus groups with staff and community on the topic of school safety and juvenile violence.
- Form a blue ribbon task force to survey the community, study options and present a plan of action.
No matter what approach you choose, it is critical that the information and recommendations be given serious consideration and an action plan be put into effect within a reasonable period. When the community sees the tangible results of its efforts, it will begin to see the value and power of acting together and take responsibility for ensuring the continued safety and well-being of their members.
Prepare for the new school year
- Conduct a safety assessment at each school and district facility.
- Update and revise district and school crisis communication plans.
- Establish a crisis intervention team and train team members.
- Provide all-staff inservice on the crisis plan and procedures.
- Conduct a mock crisis drill early in the school year.
- Review related district policies and school discipline/behavior codes; make changes where appropriate to support safety efforts.
- Include discipline policies and behavior codes, etc., in parent/student handbooks.
- At back-to-school nights and open houses, review policies and codes with parents. Show how they reduce the number of serious problems on campus.
- Review all policies and discipline codes with staff.
- Prepare fact sheets on each building site (schools, support services, central office) and the district as a whole to give to media in the event of a crisis.
- Establish procedures for students to report suspicious behavior, conversations or activities (i.e. student silent witness phone lines).
- Collaborate with local media on a public service campaign to encourage parents to be vigilant in securing personal weapons.
- Seek business and civic group support for sponsoring mentorship and /or extended day programs for students.
- Seek out collaborative efforts and grants for providing before- and after-school, extracurricular, and summer school programs for students.
- Involve all community resources at your disposal to address prevention efforts - law enforcement, social service agencies, medical, etc.
- Brief all staff on behavioral signs that indicate a child may commit violent acts. Take advantage of the expertise of your school psychologists and counselors to provide information and training for staff.
Create prevention programs for students
- Conflict resolution and anger management
- Character education programs
- Respect and tolerance of diversity
- Impulse control
- Peer mediation
- Gang and drug prevention/refusal skills
- Stress management and reduction
- Self-esteem development
Encourage student and parent responsibility
- Offer classes on parenting to adolescents as well as young children.
- Rally parental and community support for neighborhood watch groups.
- Incorporate family services into school programs.
- Encourage parents and grandparents to volunteer to supervise bus stops, playgrounds and hallways.
Some indicators of severe behavioral problems
The National Association of School Psychologists lists various behaviors symptomatic of children at risk emotionally. The following information is excerpted, with permission, from its manual, Helping Children at Home and School: Handouts from Your School Psychologist.
- One of the strongest predictors of delinquency and antisocial behavior during adolescence is aggression; it signals criminal behavior in adulthood.
- In recent years, there has been an increase in verbal disrespect by children of all ages in our society. When children do not have effective skills for coping with verbal aggression, they may respond in ways that increase interpersonal conflict and even endanger their safety. Some young people may physically fight back, resulting in injury and the possibility of revenge and more fighting at a later time.
- Stress in children is also a sign of potential problems. In young children, it may be difficult to distinguish from symptoms of minor illness. Be alert for signs of irritability, nervousness, inattention, fearfulness, difficulties in adapting to change in routine, clinginess, use of key words such as "sad" or "afraid." As children get older, their responses to stress may include more attention-seeking behaviors, mood changes, isolation from peers, school refusal or changes in the quality of school work, and physical complaints. Stress is often a frequent factor in short tempers on the playground, fights in the lunchroom, or avoidance of classroom activities or school in general.
- Depression and the associated risk of suicide increase significantly during adolescence. Symptoms of depression vary based on the individual personality of the child and on the child's developmental state. Many symptoms are also characteristic of other types of problems:
- depressed or irritable mood
- frequent crying
- loss of interest or pleasure
- physical complaints
- social withdrawal
- change in body weight
- lack of appropriate weight gain/growth
- misbehavior/discipline problems
- change in appetite
- low self-esteem
- difficulty or excessive sleeping
- feelings of worthlessness
- feelings of hopelessness
- self-injurious behavior
- difficulty concentrating
- discussion of suicidal attempt.
- Poor self-esteem has been associated with depression, suicide, low academic achievement, susceptibility to peer pressure and delinquency. Some classroom behaviors indicative of low self- esteem:
- reluctance or inability to start new tasks independently
- resisting more challenging work and/or setting low achievement goals
- frequent negative self-statements
- excessive criticism of others and/or possibly downplaying the achievements of classmates
- reactivity and dependence on external cues.
- easily influenced by peers
- very reactive to ups and downs of daily life. Failure can be devastating, even on minor projects.
The National Association of School Psychologists, 4340 East West Highway, Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814. Telephone (301) 657-0270, www.naspweb.org
National School Safety Center, 4165 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Suite 290, Westlake, Village, CA 91362. Telephone (805) 373-9977, www.nssc1.org
National Organization for Victim Assistance, 1757 Park Road NW, Washington, D.C. 20010-2101. Telephone (202) 232-6682, (24 hours) www.try-nova.org
National Crime Prevention Council, 1700 K Street, NW, 2nd Floor, Washington, D.C. 20006-3817. Telephone (202) 466-6272, www.ncpc.org
The Character Education Partnership, 918 16th St., NW, Suite 501, Washington, DC 20006. Telephone (202) 296-7743, www.character.org
One of the lessons we've learned from shootings in several states, including Oregon, is to never say "it can't happen here." We are vulnerable to complacency in our homes, at work, at schools and in our communities. Being well prepared for the possibility of such incidents not only raises the confidence of the public in our schools, it also lessens the probability that one will occur.