School Crisis: Chaos or Communication?

Posted by on March 9, 2010

The news headline: “Adults’ missteps detailed in S. Phila. High violence

The story goes on to read:

“On Dec. 3, as Asian students endured a daylong series of attacks at South Philadelphia High, the adults responsible for their safety were often confused or unsure how to respond.

The principal ordered a midmorning lockdown – designed to restrict student movement and move staffers to security posts – but some teachers weren’t notified.”

I have experienced more than my fair share of school crisis situations in over 25-years in the school safety profession. In my early days working in the security division of Cleveland Public Schools, I was on the front-lines at schools, outside at the bus drop-off or in the front hallway as gang-related riots erupted as students arrived at school. Years later, while supervising the district’s Youth Gang Unit, I lead a team responsible for preventing and responding to school gang riots, weapons incidents, drive-by shooting threats, and other crises throughout the 127-school district.

So I understand first-hand that when a riot or other major conflict erupts at a school, it takes some time to get the combatants isolated and secured in separate areas. School safety officials and administrators have to contain the conflict which just erupted, monitor to prevent further immediate escalating events, and begin anticipating what else might jump off during the remainder of the day.

Communications Plan Along with Crisis Plan

School security has come a long way in the past decade. A lot of lessons have been learned in school emergency planning. One of the major lessons is that communications is one of, if not the, most important elements to have in place before an actual incident erupts.

We advise our school principal and superintendent clients to have an emergency/crisis response plan which addresses responses to potential threatening incidents.  But we also advise them to have a crisis communications plan ready to kick in gear almost simultaneously with their emergency response plan.

For example, schools which go on an extended lockdown may subsequently make a public address announcement directing classroom teachers to check their classroom email messages for details and directions. They may also activate their mass parent notification system to quickly get out information to parents about what is occurring and what parents need to do next to help school and safety officials efficiently manage the incident at hand.

Rumors have always spread like wildfire in schools. But in today’s world of cell phones, text messaging, and social media, rumors that used to spread in hours and days now spread in seconds and minutes.  School administrators must be ready to kick their crisis communications plan into gear almost immediately after an incident occurs.

Don’t Overlook School Staff

In the growing number of schools where the communications plan is being beefed up, the focus tends to be on parent and media communications. This is good, because parent and media crisis communications tend to be under-estimated and underdeveloped. 

But far too often in our school emergency plan assessments we find well-intended school administrators forget they must also provide timely and updated information within the building to their school staff.  This is especially true when a school has an ongoing issue, such as circumstances requiring the school to be on extended lockdown for hours into the school day.

The Philadelphia article highlighted a chaotic situation which appeared to lack plans for crisis communications, especially communications with school staff.  While it is important for administrators and safety officers to get a situation under control as soon as possible, they can often prevent spin-off incidents, staff anxiety, and accelerated rumors by building into their plans a process to update staff members so they know what to be alert for as the day evolves.

A solid crisis communications plan probably will not eliminate chaos, but it will help to more efficiently and effectively manage that chaos which has occurred.

Does your school have crisis communications plans for staff, parents, and the media, in addition to their traditional school emergency/crisis incident response guidelines?

Ken Trump

Visit School Security Blog at: 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *