Crisis Communication in Schools

Let me preface this article by assuring you that, as far as I have been able to ascertain, no one was harmed in the incident I am about to discuss. Further, let me assure you that everyone in my family is okay.

With the Columbine shootings nearly 10 years behind us and the much more recent Virginia Tech shootings almost six months behind us, I am extremely disappointed in the way crisis communication still seems to be so lacking in our schools.

As parents and as employees at learning institutions (I work at a community college and my wife works at my children’s middle school), we both are rightfully concerned about how our schools will react in the face of a crisis. Being a key player in my college’s crisis communication plan, I have a great deal of faith in the way things would be handled at work. Up until today, I had no real reason to doubt how things would be handled at my children’s school.

Today changed all of that, though.

My wife called me a little before noon today, extremely distraught. She and my daughters stayed home from school today, as one of our kids has a very persistent case of poison ivy, for which she’s now seen the doctor three times in the last two weeks. Our son, however, went to school.

When my wife called me, she told me that there had apparently been shots fired at the high school.

For most people with middle school-aged children, this would be a little startling, but it wouldn’t be a reason for panic. However, in the case of the school our children attend, it’s grounds for a little more than just mild concern. The high school sits right next door to the intermediate school (fourth and fifth grades), which sits directly across the street from the middle school. To put it another way, the middle school, the intermediate school and the high school are all essentially on the same piece of land.

Putting it into perspective a little more, the middle school and high school are considerably closer to each other than the residence hall is to the classrooms where the shootings occurred at Virginia Tech.

As soon as I hung up the phone with my wife, I started searching the Web for information on the incident. I didn’t find a thing. I checked the school system’s Web site, and it did not have one iota of information on the occurrence. I checked the official Web site for the high school, and found that it was not only ugly, but it hadn’t changed at all in a few weeks.

I then scooted on over to the Web sites of some of our local TV and radio stations, only to find that there were no updates posted there, either.

I called my wife back and told her that I was on my way to pick up our son and to head home. I hopped in the car and started heading that direction. I flipped back and forth between three different local radio stations, hoping to hear something, anything at all, about what was happening. I didn’t hear a thing.

My wife called me back to tell me that she had heard that the suspect had been arrested, and that the schools were all going back to “code green”. She had apparently gotten this information secondhand from our kids’ aunt, who was at the high school trying to pick up her son. I was already on my way to the school, though, so I went ahead and picked up our son.

I got home, searched the Web again, and came across two very small, extremely uninformative stories about the occurrence. They didn’t give any details, nor did they include any real information from any official sources.

It is now close to 4 p.m., and I still have not heard or seen any real information on what happened, what is happening, and what is going to be done about the situation.

While I have no bones to pick with the way the crisis situation itself was handled (as I said at the beginning of this article, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, no one was hurt), I have a huge bone to pick with the complete and total lack of communication.

I can say with almost absolute certainty that, after what happened at Virginia Tech, I would lose my job if we went more than an half hour without posting something on our Web site in the event of a crisis situation. Here it is nearly 5 hours after the situation began, and nearly 4 hours after the situation was supposedly resolved, and we still have no word as to what happened.

As I said, I have no real bone to pick with the way the crisis itself was handled (although, that may be because I still know next to nothing about what actually happened). After a bit of research, I found out that our area just recently (this week, in fact) assigned full-time law enforcement officials to each of the high schools in our county. This, sadly, was a reaction to a bomb threat (which turned out to be a hoax) that occurred last week at another one of the high schools in the county. With it being a reaction to something that happened last week, however, it kind of makes me wonder how long it will be before budget cuts and poor memories will cause us to remove those law enforcement officials from our schools.

Why are schools still so ill-prepared to deal with these types of situations and to communicate with concerned parents and citizens when things like this occur? What can be done to improve the situation besides becoming outraged with our representatives? Am I overly sensitive to the situation because I am actively involved in the crisis planning at my own place of employment? How would you react in a situation like this?