This is a guest post by Rick J. Kaufman, APR, Executive Director of Community Relations and Emergency Management for Bloomington (MN) Public Schools.

Providing a safe and secure environment for students to learn and staff to work is critical to the success of any school. Creating that environment while balancing the equally important welcoming atmosphere can be a challenging task.

As we recognize Safe Schools Week, October 15-21, it is important to note that our schools are better prepared to prevent school violence and to respond to school emergencies. There is no guarantee that schools will be violence-free. And, while there are no easy solutions, there are intelligent alternatives to reduce the risks to life and property.

Planning and Training

 When we consider school crises and emergencies, the type of events are very broad in terms of severity or magnitude and their impact on students, staff, parents and community.

Consider that school emergencies or crises fall on a continuum – those more commonplace on one end and events such as what we faced at Columbine High School in 1999, on the other. Regardless of where an emergency may align on this continuum, knowing what to do in a crisis can be the difference between chaos and calm – or even life and death. As Margaret Spellings once said, “The midst of a crisis is not the time to start figuring out who ought to do what. At that moment, everyone involved should know the drill.”

Knowing what to do, then, should be part of a well-defined crisis response plan, including clear procedures to guide staff to resolving the crisis, minimizing its impacts, and restoring the teaching and learning environment post-incident.

While most schools have a well-conceived crisis response or emergency operations plan, in far too many cases I’ve seen incomplete, overly burdensome or cut-and-paste documents that are nothing more than dust collecting bookends on an office shelf.

Worse yet, school officials believe their faculty and staff are prepared to act when a real world incident occurs. Nothing is further from the truth.

School leaders that believe common sense will prevail and staff will rise to the occasion are misguided. The reality is that in high-stress, high-anxiety, high-fear events, our cognitive function and manual dexterity are impacted in varying degrees. In short, our brain is searching for a “trigger” to tell the body how to react. We default to what we know and are trained to do in these incidents. Oh, you mean like those fire, evacuation and lockdown drills? Ding, ding, ding … “what does Captain Obvious win, Johnny?”

Okay, all joking aside. Yes. Training, safety drills and exercises are an absolute necessity for everyone on campus. Preparation is mission critical. When we train and drill, we create the cultural condition to know what to do in a real-world crisis. And, this is what will save lives. We also demonstrate the teamwork needed when responding to and recovering from a school incident.

Communication is the foundation of any crisis planning, implementation, management and recovery effort

If the priority in a crisis is public safety, then the top objective for crisis communication should be to prevent harm to stakeholders. With a nod to Spellings, dare I say, “The midst of a crisis is not the time to let students, staff and families know what to do in an emergency. That needs to occur before it happens.”

School leaders need to be prepared to offer parents assurances that their child’s school is safe, and measures are in place to respond to any type of incident. Communication to parents and guardians is critical to developing an understanding about what happens in school when an incident occurs. What is a lockdown? Where will students go if they need to evacuate? How do I know my child is safe?

When schools build a rapport and understanding with parents, they build credibility and enhance their reputation. Not communicating and keeping parents in the dark is a recipe for disaster when disaster strikes.

It stands to reason, then, that we must not only be first with communication, when possible, but credible … always. To achieve this requires a robust strategy and plan that focuses on traditional and social media.

The key is a balance, knowing that school and community stakeholders receive their information from a variety of sources. No school system is best served by relying on any one communications channel. Emergency preparedness plans must account for multiple communication approaches and vehicles. The more schools engage in the use of traditional and social media from the onset of a crisis, the better positioned they are to anticipate, communicate and regain trust in order to help manage and recover from a crisis.

Crises often create an information void. The public abhors a vacuum. Absence of communication or undue delays have consequences. Stakeholders will be motivated to reduce uncertainty, which leads to increased information seeking. That information may come from the ill informed, misinformed, or persons with less than desirable motivations.

Additionally, residents expect public organizations to adhere to the accountability principle by providing a thorough explanation of events, responses and assurances the causes do not contribute to a repeat.

Like many public organizations, school districts have a greater obligation to provide information, and demonstrate the greatest transparency. Any other strategy risks long-term impacts and may delay the recovery or return to normalcy.

As strong of a conviction as I have for timely communication, I’m convinced that managing any crisis successfully is less about saying the right things and more about doing the right things. People remember how a crisis was handled longer than the details of the incident.

We cannot effectively predict when school violence or an incident that throws our collective school and community equilibrium out of whack will occur. Being prepared now is proactive.

There is no simple solution to school safety, and no measure in use today is fail-safe. So, we must remain committed to improving and strengthening all aspects of our crisis prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery plans.

Keep the faith.

Rick J. Kaufman is the Executive Director of Community Relations and Emergency Management for Bloomington (MN) Public Schools, where he is responsible for directing the district’s communications, community relations and emergency management programs. Rick formerly served as the Executive Director of Public Engagement and Communications for Jefferson County Public Schools, Colorado’s largest school system, from 1998-2006.

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