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Columbine’s lessons still sharp, a decade later

Techniques pioneered by Jefferson County communications team still considered best practices today

A decade after two students opened fire at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., killing 13 and injuring dozens more before turning the guns on themselves, the lessons in crisis communications and management gleaned from this tragic event still resonate for school leaders nationwide.

For those closest to the tragedy, the pain still resonates, too. “I see the faces of each student and Dave Sanders who were murdered, and the lives of those who were injured, and those who survived, but carried the scars from that day for a long time,” says Rick Kaufman, APR (Accreditation in Public Relations), who had been leading Jefferson County Public Schools’ communications team for less than a year when the tragedy occurred.

Kaufman now serves as executive director of community relations and coordinator of emergency management for Bloomington Public Schools in Minnesota. “From the pain, some would say we’ve triumphed, but that rings very hollow to the parents and siblings and extended families of those who were lost,” says Kaufman.

The worst crime committed at a K-12 school in American history (33 people died in the Va. Tech massacre eight years later), Columbine changed crisis planning, intervention, and response.

“I believe educators no longer operate under the assumption that major crisis events are anomalies that ‘would never happen in our district,’” says Karen Kleinz, APR, associate executive director of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA).

Kleinz, who provided on-site assistance in the tragedy’s wake, says Columbine’s ripple effects of copycat threats, frightened families, and calls for increased campus security and the identification of students at risk of severe behavioral problems were felt nationwide.

“Since the tragedy at Columbine, there have been so many unusual and unexpected crises that have touched our schools–other shootings, 9-11, and extreme weather disasters, to name a few–that our heads are forever out of the sand,” says Klein. “Proactive crisis planning is now the norm rather than the exception.”

A watershed event, Columbine was, in many ways, one of the first major crises of the internet age. News coverage was worldwide, 24-7. In less than a day, more than 500 news outlets descended on Littleton, Colo., a Denver suburb.

Web sites carried events live. Soon, school officials were answering calls from new media outlets many had never heard of, like Salon magazine, which ultimately provided some of the most thoughtful–and accurate–coverage of the crisis.

The magnitude of the mass murder, combined with the revved-up volume and speed of information flow, rendered traditional approval processes and timelines obsolete. With rumors flying, the communications team at the scene had to move just as fast–and they needed reinforcements.

“While many of the tried-and-true strategies we had used for years had some immediate effectiveness, as that event unfolded, it quickly became apparent that those were not going to be enough after the first 24 hours,” says Kleinz.

Crisis experts now recognize that high-level events like Columbine have distinguishable phases that require specific expertise and different communication strategies, according to Kleinz.

Some of the techniques the Columbine communications team pioneered, like creating a web site devoted to news and information about the crisis and using eMail messages and voice broadcasting to keep staff members and parents informed, are still considered best practices today.

“We have improved our ability to communicate more efficiently, effectively, and broadly, thanks to what we learned as a result of the Columbine tragedy, Hurricane Katrina, and the other tragic events on our schools and university campuses,” says Kaufman. “Parent notification systems, the use of social media outlets, and a host of other efforts have allowed us to communicate almost immediately.”

The team also brought in dozens of communication volunteers across Colorado who manned phone lines, handled media requests, crafted message points, and mapped out key events, from press briefings to the district’s ecumenical memorial service. NSPRA flew in a handful of national experts as well.

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