Despite a 30 percent decrease in incidents of violence last year, four school shootings produced a 700 percent increase in the reporting of school-related violence, according to the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA). The resulting hype has left parents fearing the worst for their childrenand administrators scrambling to assure parents that their schools are really safe.
Ignoring a potential problem is foolhardy. On the other hand, overreacting to the perception of violence can lead to criticism of another kind: that schools are treading on students’ rights. In Mississippi, for example, the Harrison County School District barred a Jewish student from wearing his Star of David pendant because school officials considered it a gang symbol. The district rescinded its policy after the ACLU sued on the student’s behalf, but not before being pilloried in the national news media.
According to the NSPRA, the key to striking a balance between not doing enough and doing too much to make your schools safe is better communication with stakeholders. NSPRA Associate Executive Director Karen Kleinz offered seven tips for improving communication and building public support on school safety issues:
1. Conduct a safety needs assessment, and let stakeholders know you’ve done this.
The first step toward assuaging parents’ fearsand making your schools safeis to evaluate your basic safety needs, Kleinz said. If you haven’t already, enlist the aid of local law enforcement officers to conduct a needs assessment in your schools. Often, this can lead to steps as simple as locking a back door or installing floodlights in a dimly lit area.
2. Include stakeholders in decision making as much as possible.
“I don’t believe schools should try to go it alone,” Kleinz said. “Schools need to have an open dialog with parents, asking, ‘What would make your children feel safe?’ It could be metal detectors, it could be surveillance cameras, it could just be peer mediation programs. But it will take a buy-in from parents to make these kinds of programs successful.”
Discuss all safety proposals in a public forum, such as a school board meeting. If you form a committee to study school safety issues, be sure to include parents, teachers, and students.
3. Review all policies and discipline codes to make sure they’re in synch with the times.
“When you don’t go back and revisit these periodically, you forget they’re in place,” Kleinz said. Reviewing policies and discipline codes in a public forum, such as a school board or PTA meeting, will raise awareness and also ensure that parents are comfortable with them.
4. Be proactive and specific in communicating policies and changes that have already been implemented.
Several misunderstandings arise from policies and procedures that schools have already implemented, but have failed to tell parents about, Kleinz said. Don’t wait for a conflict or question to arise; make sure you tell parents up front about any changes that might affect the school environment. Tell them why you implemented those changes, and tell them how the changes will make their children safer.
“Position [your safety program] as: This is a partnership to keep our kids safe,” Kleinz said.
Many schools have run into trouble with “zero tolerance” programs, because these programs are not always fully understood by parents. “We know that these do help,” Kleinz said, “but for people to be comfortable with them, there has to be an understanding of what ‘zero tolerance’ means at each grade level.” Clearly communicating expectations to parents, students, and teachers will avoid confusionand conflictdown the road.
Make sure you also point out how the programs you’ve implemented are working, Kleinz said: “There’s lots of opportunities to show the positive side to parents.”
5. Be forthcoming with statistics or incidents of violence in your schools.
Your natural instinct might be to keep these as quiet as possible, but this just tends to make things worse. It breaches people’s trust in the school system and can lead to the spreading of rumors, making it harder in the end to separate fact from fiction.
Instead of covering up incidents of violence, document and share them with the public so parents can see that the frequency of these incidents is low and that you have dealt with them appropriately, Kleinz said.
6. Establish a way for students to report their concerns anonymously.
Many states and individual school districts have set up toll-free hotlines for students to report threats, suspicions, or other acts of violence without the fear of retaliation. Establishing a safety hotline or another way for students to speak out without revealing their identity will assure parents that their children have someplace to turn if they feel threatened in any way.
7. Have a crisis plan, and make sure stakeholders know the correct procedures.
Clearly inform parents of all evacuation procedures, meeting places, communication channels, and other details to avoid confusion in the event of a crisis. If you establish a “crisis team” to assist you in drafting your plan, include parent, student, and teacher representatives.
Stakeholders also should be notified in the event of a crisis drill. This should go without saying, but in several communities this fall, crisis drills alarmed nearby residents who assumed the drills were real. n
National School Public Relations Association