“It broke my heart.”–Allie, age six.

Teddy bears and football jerseys. Pinwheels and flamingos. Rosaries and roses. Volleyballs and wind chimes. Balloons, cards, collages, letters, posters, notes, Popsicle stick art, and sculpture. A muddy hill. Makeshift crosses. Rachel’s car.

There are many images I will always carry with me from my week in Littleton–the grace and resilience of the Columbine students as they eulogized their classmates and thanked their teachers, calmly describing the day “we all had to run for our lives.” The bandages, kind words, and brave smiles of the survivors.

The love, pride, and protectiveness in the Columbine principal’s eyes as he watched his students tell their stories to the press after their first day back at school. The exhaustion. The hope.

The sheer grit and guts of the communications staff as they juggled impossible demands and deadlines, including the onslaught of more than 750 worldwide media outlets and the impromptu tent city they created across from the high school.

One of the most deadly crimes in the history of American education, the Columbine tragedy makes the term “crisis management” seem woefully inadequate to describe the magnitude of what Jefferson County Public Schools and its community are dealing with.

Having seen and experienced just part of it first-hand, let me make this perfectly clear: We’re not ready. You’re not ready. No one is ready for this. And no one will ever know, fully, why it happened.

While it’s way too early to glean any definite lessons, here are a few insights and tips fresh from the frontlines of crisis communication:

The news media, led by CNN and the web, play a dominant role in shaping the world’s coverage and interpretation of events.

If we didn’t understand this when Princess Diana died, Columbine brought it all home again, with second-by-second coverage and online news updates and chat rooms, 24 hours a day.

As school communicators, we need to understand this new medium and know who the new players are. We need to be able to talk their language and find ways to partner that keep everyone sane.

CNN, for example, played a critical leadership role in the “media pools” we set up with a handful of representatives from television, print, radio, and photographic press to give the press controlled access to important events and people without creating a media circus.

They worked within our guidelines (no images or close-ups of victims or their families, for example), and fed the coverage to the rest of the world via satellite, so everyone could get everything–all at the same time.

Take a hard look at your telecommunications infrastructure, from phone systems to web site and data management–now.

Jefferson County Public Schools was able to keep most staff, parents, and students “in the loop” with breaking information throughout the crisis, thanks to frequent broadcasts via voice mail, eMail, fax, and the web.

Jeffco also uses Voice Poll (TM) technology, a national product that can quickly compile phone responses to district surveys. Voice Poll can be employed at the drop of a hat to gauge community perceptions and opinions–an important consideration in the days and weeks to come.

These portable systems, fortified by a 15-station command center and an army of cell phones and pagers, are playing a critical role in the day-to-day management of this tragedy and its aftermath.

The soft stuff is the hard stuff.

Teamwork, leadership, cooperation, loyalty, sense of urgency, flexibility, and trust–the traditions, habits, and patterns that make up your organization’s culture, your district’s unique way of doing things–will make or break you during a crisis. Great families pull together when the going gets tough; the same is true for organizations. You might want to give your school and key relationships a climate check-up while you still can.

Columbine. The world has moved on to the next news story, and anxious educators across the country count the days like never before until this school year ends.

Scenes flash across my mind’s eye–the shaking hands and anguished heart of a news photographer. The communications director–Rick Kaufman, APR–with a phone in each ear, pager beeping, five calls on hold, other phones ringing, staff and volunteers lining up behind him for answers and decisions, media tip sheet in hand for final approval, and a press conference only moments away.

The quiet dignity of a SWAT team member as he stood in the Colorado sunshine at Red Rocks Amphitheatre with his two boys, hands on their shoulders, soaking in the healing words and music during the school’s final remembrance ceremony.

But Allie, and her buddies in Brownie Troop 381 from Shepardson Elementary School in Fort Collins, Colo., captured it best.

“It broke my heart,” she wrote to Columbine and to all of us, scrawled in crayon on a giant card, a silent sentry poised in the mud at the entrance of a makeshift memorial that moved the world.

Web sites

Jefferson County Public Schools: A special section on Columbine includes an eMail link for messages for staff and students, information on the new Columbine Tribute Fund, how to help, ordering information for “Columbine, Friend of Mine” CD, memorials, related links, resources for parents and community members, news updates, and discussion rooms.

http://jeffco.k12.co.us

Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance: Offers tips on dealing with trauma for parents, family members, teacher, and staff.

http://www.ColoOrg.com

American Psychological Association: Provides statistics on school violence, offers insight into violence prevention, and lists early warning signs.

http://www.helping.apa.org

MNSBC: Provides an extensive resource guide for parents and teachers on Kids and Violence (just keep clicking to make sure you get it all), including information on bullies and victims from top experts.

http://www.mnsbc.com