Paducah, Springfield, Edinboro . . . a grim roll call of violence and death in “safe” communities and schools. These places provide a warning that the unspeakable, the unthinkable, can truly happen anywhere.

And because the national news media — outfitted with all the latest high-tech gear — will descend on a school tragedy in a frenzy, educators must be prepared to use their own technology to maintain clear channels of communications with their stakeholders and to keep the record straight.

Karen McCuiston, communication specialist with the McCracken County Schools in Paducah, Ky., had been in her new position as the district’s part-time public relations contact less than two weeks when a student opened fire on a prayer-group meeting, killing three children and wounding several others.

Within 24 hours, McCuiston was dealing with an unprecedented media onslaught of more than 158 reporters, photographers, and camera crews vying for interviews, photos and attention.

“We wanted the national media to go home, to let us heal,” says McCuiston, noting that every major media outlet wanted the same thing: reactions from the students most affected by the tragedy. “We wanted them to quit picking our scabs and watching us bleed.”

Although McCuiston handled her “trial by fire” with grace, guts, and uncanny intuition about how to handle communications during a crisis, she urges school leaders to plan now for the unthinkable.

“It’s your property, it’s your school,” said McCuiston. “And it’s your story.”

Be prepared

As these small-town incidents make clear, no school community can any longer be considered beyond the reach of violence, and the media uproar that accompanies such shocking tragedies.

McCuiston says now that many of the decisions she had to make “on the spot” — from establishing a communications center, a designated media area, and district spokesperson to comforting parents and staff and developing policies for releasing information about the dead and wounded — could have been thought out in advance.

Training, “on-camera” practice, and “dry-runs” of all aspects of the plan and communication chain of command are essential.

Use the web in a crisis

Planning should also include what role, if any, the web should play in crisis communications.

“Generally, to establish credibility, it’s better to get your facts and information out first,” says Elliott Levine, director of communications for Lawrence Public Schools in Lawrence, N.Y. “The web lets us do that in the way we want it presented.”

Levine has used the web effectively to communicate critical information quickly to the media, parents, and community opinion leaders regarding sensitive issues such as changing student demographics, plans for dealing with overcrowding, and the district’s response to the arrest of a non-resident parent for illegally registering a child in one of Lawrence’s schools–a state “first” that made national news.

During a crisis, web sites can also be used to update the media, provide more detailed information, and link parents and the community with critical resources. Many schools have also used their web sites as part of the healing process, honoring victims with testimonials, thanking community supporters, and providing an important outlet for students and the community to express their grief and donate to memorial funds.

Resources

  • The National School Public Relations Association’s special publication, “Never Say Never: Violence and Tragedy Can Strike Anywhere.”

  • The National Association of School Psychologists offers case studies of programs and schools that can help.

  • The National School Safety Center offers a school safety workbook

  • The National Crime Prevention Council offers an online resource center on violence prevention.

  • ERIC’s Urban Education Web Site has a special section on school safety issues.

National School Public Relations Associations
http://www.nspra.org

National Association of School Psychologists
http://www.naspbweb.org

National School Safety Center
http://www.nssc1.org

National Crime Prevention Council
http://www.ncpc.org

ERIC’s Urban Education Web Site
http://ericweb.tc.columbia.edu

The Agape Fund: For the Parents of Our Departed Classmates
http://www.apex.net/agape/

The Edinboro, Pa., Community Web
http://www.edinboro.com/

Character Education Partnership
http://www.character.org/