If you want to see my friend and colleague, Chuck Hibbert, turn three shades of red and have steam coming out of his ears, just be nearby when a school shooting occurs and a school official tells the media:
“This was an isolated incident.”
Chuck’s tongue-in-cheek response rolls off his lips without hesitation:
“Yes, this was an isolated incident. So was Columbine. And so was 9-11. After all, Columbine High School only had one isolated mass murder attack and there was only one 9-11 terror attack of that magnitude killing thousands of Americans in one day in NY City.”
Chuck believes, rightfully so in my opinion, the “isolated incident” soundbyte by school administrators is an insensitive way for school officials to defend their image by downplaying a very serious school safety incident.
Thank goodness school shootings and other high-profile incidents do not occur in every school each day — or for that matter, on a handful of days in a given school year. No one is suggesting they do.
But the last thing parents want to hear from the school officials with whom they entrust their child’s safety is that the shooting or stabbing incident earlier in the day at the school was just an “isolated incident.”
While it may or may not be the message intended by school officials, by using the “isolated incident” phrase, most parents really hear:
“Today’s shooting at our school was not important to us. It is an ‘isolated incident’ so it probably will never happen again. Let’s just forget it happened and move on so we can get the kids back in class and, the parents and the media off of our lawn.”
Is this how educators really feel in their “heart of hearts”? We’d like to hope not. Our 25-years-per-person experience in working with educators has taught us they are some of the most caring people in the world.
But by referring to a school crisis, school security threat, or similar school safety incident of concern to the community as an “isolated incident,” educators really send a message of minimized caring on their part. And that is the last thing understandably emotional parents want to hear at a time when the safety of their children is in question.
No principal or superintendent wants to truly believe it can happen in their schools. Unfortunately for some, it does happen.
Bad things happen to good people and to good schools. As a nation and education community, we should be long past the point of “deny, downplay, deflect, and defend” when something serious does happen in our schools.
If a serious incident happens, school leaders must acknowledge it up-front without couching it in qualified, minimizing statements like “isolated incident.”
Most of all, they must communicate and demonstrate to parents that they are the caring people we know them to be. Doing so could potentially save educators the legal and public relations nightmare they so terribly fear.
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