Columbine High School, April 20, 1999. The images sear the soul and tear at the heart. Students running for their lives. Grieving teenagers and teachers. Emergency responders loading ambulances. Courageous school leaders striving to manage the unmanageable. Parents waiting in a gym to reunite with sons and daughters who will never come home again.
We think we know Columbine High School. But do we? It seems to me that the true spirit of Columbine isn’t reflected in the unthinkable tragedy that occurred there, but in the brave and caring actions of the people who continue to respond with incredible grace and dignity to an unfathomable situation.
I think of my public relations colleagues at Jefferson County Public SchoolsRick Kaufman, Marilyn Saltzman, APR, and Christian Andersonwho, nearly a year later, have yet to go a single day without a call about Columbine from the local or worldwide media.
Not only are they continuing to communicate the incommunicable, but they’re working with educators and law enforcement officials nationwide on crisis prevention and communication, calmly and compassionately reliving the nightmare again and again so others can learn from and with them.
I think of the slain teacher, Dave Andersen, who could have run to safety but chose to protect his students instead. I think of the teenagers with himkids reallywho not only tried valiantly to save his life, but also miraculously thought to get their teacher’s wallet out and show him pictures of his family as he lay dying.
And I think of the young people we lost, and the ones whose hearts and minds have been touched in ways we can’t possibly know or understand. They not only carry on with their work and their lives, but they inspire us with their words, actions, and sheer goodness.
As the anniversary of this tragedy nears, we need to remember these American heroes and honor them with our actions. While I can’t possibly do them justice, here are a few humble suggestions that can serve simply as a starting point.
• Update your crisis management plans and strengthen your communications component by integrating the web and fax, eMail and voice broadcasting. How well and how quickly you communicate before, during, and after a crisis will make you or break you in terms of professional reputation and public opinion, yet it is often the most neglected area of school crisis management plans. Students, teachers, staff, parents, and key community opinion leaders should find out critical information from you, not the media.
• Alert school leaders and key staff members to heighten their awareness and security measures. Anticipate that web and media coverage will intensify as the anniversary draws near. Unfortunately, this renewed scrutiny may spark another rash of bomb threats and other incidents, so make sure everyone is clear about policies and procedures.
• Post information on your web site on what parents, students, staff, and concerned citizens can do to prevent violence, recognize early warning signs, and find help if needed. The National Association for School Psychologists has great tips and information for parents and professionals on its web site, as well as links to other high quality sites on school safety. Resources include “Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools” and “Pathways to Tolerance: A Guide to Student Diversity.”
• Join forces with local civic leaders and ask that your local media cover this anniversary responsibly and appropriately. For tips and strategies on how to do this effectively, contact the National School Public Relations Association.
• Use your web site to communicate what your district is doing to make sure that students and staff are safe, secure, and protected. Post artwork and essays on personal responsibility, honesty, caring, compassion, and citizenship. Help them understand your character education efforts. Post information about discipline policies and procedures and the steps you’ve taken to improve school safety.
• Provide an interactive forum on the webvia a chat room, bulletin board, eMail address, or surveyfor parents, students, and the community to share their insights, suggestions, and concerns regarding the tragedy and related issues.
• Launch a proactive safety campaign to get more volunteers and mentors into our schools so that every child comes in contact with a caring adult every single dayat home, in the community, and at school. The “only arms they’ll ever need” campaign developed by the Grand Haven Area Public Schools to promote community involvement in school safety is one of the best I’ve seen and could serve as a great model for an effort in your area. The goal of the program is to get more adults in the community to reach out to kids, and to emphasize that school safety is a shared responsibility.
• If you do create your own public service theme and campaign, try to use real community members, parents, and students in your ads and announcements. Develop components for the web (internet and intranet) and cable television, as well as the traditional media and advertising.
• Finally, visit the Jefferson County Public Schools web site and share the good news with others about the achievements and accomplishments of one of Colorado’s finest high schoolsColumbine. Join the thousands of caring citizens worldwide and make a donationno matter how smallto the Columbine Tribute Fund so it can continue to support the students and families impacted by this tragedy.
Columbine touched us all. Whether we become better educators, better people, and better communities is up to us. n
National Assoc. for School Psychologists
National School Public Relations Assoc.
Grand Haven Area Public Schools
Jefferson County Public Schools
Award-winning public relations professional Nora Carr is assistant superintendent of public information for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina.