No one likes to think about the worst case scenario in a school crisis. Especially parents. But parents need to be prepared for school emergencies. We can help reduce fear and anxiety by sharing what to expect when the unexpected happens.
Schools are safe places.
Fact is, for many children, school is safer than in their neighborhood environment.
Sadly, when an act of school violence makes headlines, emotions hijack our peace and balance. The emotional floodgates open and panic and fear takes over our brain. We know all too well that when emotions and facts collide, emotions win out every time.
Engage Parents in Planning
There’s no stronger emotional bond than parents and their children. And because children spend six-to-eight hours a day, five days a week in school, one would expect parents want to be informed about their child’s school’s safety measures.
According to the National Crime Prevention Council, two-thirds of parents haven’t talked to their children’s teachers about school safety.
But it’s an opportunity for school leaders to engage parents in conversations and plans that affect the safety of their children. It’s also an opportunity to prepare parents how the school will communicate in the event of an emergency.
In so doing, we create strong relationships with a stakeholder group that has the greatest connection to our schools.
A lot of my work with school systems starts with facilitated conversations to determine the perceived level of safety among various stakeholders, especially parents. I use these questions to generate a discussion:
- When it comes to school safety, what are your greatest fears?
- What safety elements stand out as effective in your child’s school?
- What are the most pressing safety/security needs in your child’s school?
- What barriers exist to improving current or non-existent safety/security measures?
- What safety topics are most important for you to be aware of in the event of a school emergency? What is it you want or need to know?
- What prevention and response efforts are you aware the school has in place to eliminate safety threats?
- What steps could the school do to prevent violence and ensure a more secure school?
I love this process of taking the stakeholder temperature because it provides valuable insights into the perception and tolerance for security improvements. More importantly, it engages parents in the process of collaborating on school safety.
What Parents Want to Know
I’m frequently asked in these conversations or when presenting to parent groups:
- What is being done to ensure schools are safe and secure?
- What type of training do school employees undergo to ensure they are prepared for an emergency? Is this the same training/drills for students?
- How do schools respond to an emergency?
- What happens in a school emergency?
- What should parents do in a school emergency?
- How will parents be notified about a school emergency?
In parent communication, we often cite some iteration of, “Keeping your children safe while at school is our top priority.” If that’s true, then honor that commitment by proactively informing and educating parents.
Prepare. Prevent. Respond. Recover.
The more parents are informed about school safety, the less anxiety they are likely to experience in a crisis. They are also better prepared to assist schools during potential and real emergencies.
Back-to-school or open house nights provide a wonderful opportunity - and captive - audience to share elements of school safety plans: how schools prepare for, work to prevent, respond to and recover from school incidents. We send them home with a visual resource to post on the refrigerator: “What to do before, during and after a school emergency.”
At a couple school safety conferences last year, I met Michele Gay, parent of a child killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting and a founder of Safe and Sound Schools. Michele is a strong advocate of involving parents in the school safety discussion and problem-solving efforts. Preparing parents may be a simple task, but it’s often not part of a school communications plan.
Timely communication is a critical task in a school crisis, largely because it helps reduce anxiety associated with a lack of knowledge as incident events unfold. As anxiety and fears rise, parents are likely to respond purely out of emotion. And, that includes getting to the school in crisis as quickly as possible in the hopes they’ll learn more.
Schools that prepare their parent community - letting them know in advance how it communicates in an emergency, at what intervals, and what to do and where to go creates social capital, a fostering of trust and bonding among valuable stakeholders.
There’s an added benefit. Schools are safer when parents, students, educators, life safety partners and community members join together in a collaborative effort to improve crisis prevention, response and recovery.
In an emergency, a school’s first priority is to ensure all students and staff are safe, accounted for, and that students are under adult supervision. As soon as it is possible to do so, communicate available information to parents … acknowledge an incident and what response steps are taking place.
Provide frequent updates.
Communications during and after a crisis requires school leaders to listen, respond to concerns, and always show empathy for the school community impacted by the incident.
When schools take time to talk to parents, ask for feedback and opinions, and communicate in a timely manner when bad stuff happens, it creates an environment where children and parents feel secure.
For more on getting parents involved in school safety planning, check out Safe and Sound Schools’ Parents for Safe Schools.
I’d love to hear your comments, feedback or your tips. Feel free to share so we become a community of learners.
Rick J. Kaufman, APR is the executive director of community relations and emergency management for Bloomington (MN) Public Schools. He is a nationally respected consultant, trainer and author on crisis management and communication. He served as the Crisis Response Team lead for the Columbine High School tragedy in 1999, and continues to work with school districts across the country to manage and recover from school violence incidents, including Broward County Public Schools and San Bernardino City Unified Public Schools. Mr. Kaufman is the author of the Complete Crisis Communication Management Manual for Schools (2016, NSPRA).