Communicating school safety to parents: Superintendents and principals need strategic support on what to say, how to say it, and when to say it

Posted by on August 29, 2023

If we don’t better support superintendents and principals in becoming strategic school safety leaders and communicators, they will lose the trust and confidence of parents, students, staff, and their school communities. They might also lose their jobs.

Yesteryear’s school safety communications spin no longer works

During the first couple of decades of my school security career, school leaders often took what I call the “3-D” approach to communicating about school safety when an incident of crime or violence occurred: Deny, deflect, and defend.

My first exposure to this occurred very early in my career when I spent three years in a school district’s security division tracking youth gangs that the district officially did not acknowledge. A superintendent at the time said in a meeting that we did not have gangs in the school district.  He said we had “organized youth student group misconduct.” (A couple years later, I created and supervised a five-person Youth Gang Unit in the same district that became nationally recognized for reducing school gang violence.)

I jokingly say that when I later transitioned to a suburban school district security director position, we did not have kids involved with drugs. We had “pharmaceutical distribution specialists in a suburban educational setting.”  At that time, the 3-D approach was still alive and well, as a school board member and superintendent basically told me and a police chief that if we kept reporting crimes that occurred in the schools, it would have an adverse impact on the school district image and community property values.

Simply put, in decades past having a police car parked in front of your school was seen as a negative reflection of the principal’s management of the school and the superintendent’s leadership of the district.

Communicating about school safety today has school leaders walking a tightrope between the extremes of remaining silent and overpromising

Fast forward through our nation’s high-profile school shootings such as Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Uvalde, and numerous others. Today, parents are frustrated with school leaders if each school does not have an assigned School Resource Officer (SRO). School administrators hold press conferences to boast about new security equipment and active shooter drills.  Times indeed have changed.

However, superintendents and principals increasingly can – and do – lose their jobs when their stakeholders lose confidence in their ability to lead on, and effectively communicate about, school safety. This leaves superintendents and principals walking a tightrope.  As one principal told me during my recent doctoral program research, “When it comes to school safety, I don’t know what to say, how to say it, and when to say it.”

Saying nothing is the first step towards failure for superintendents and principals. But overpromising is also dangerous. For example, I recently saw this quote and a video interview in a news story with a school district central office administrator about back-to-school security:

“Our campuses are the safest when it comes to physical security,” XYZ said. “We have everything in place that we need to have in place.”

I recognize the need and intention to reassure parents that their school leaders are thinking about school safety and have taken steps to prepare for a critical incident.  However, saying that your campuses are “the safest” is a statement that could come back to haunt you if/when an incident occurs.  To say that you “have everything in place that we need to have in place” is also risky.  Can you really make those guarantees to your school community?

I have served as a civil litigation expert witness on school safety lawsuits, including for some of the nation’s highest profile school shooting cases. I can see a plaintiff’s attorney grilling that administrator about those comments in a deposition or in a courtroom for a lawsuit filed following an incident that occurs after those comments were made publicly.

Being experienced with the media, I can also see those words coming back to haunt the administrator and school district in the court of public opinion.  Imagine being asked: “But you told us your campuses are ‘the safest’ and that you had ‘everything in place that we need to have in place’ — so how did this tragedy happen?

Focus forward: Preparing school administrators to be strategic school safety leaders and communicators

Years ago at a conference I keynoted for school leaders, an Illinois superintendent told me, “I can mess up a bit on curriculum or facilities, and my community may forgive me.  If I mess up on school safety, it is a career-ender.” This is no truer than it is today.

You can manage an incident perfectly from a school security perspective. But if you mess up on the communications, it will overshadow your perfectly executed management of the security incident itself.

My recently completed doctoral research at Johns Hopkins focuses on school administrator strategic school safety and crisis leadership, and its intersection with communicating school safety in highly ambiguous and uncertain times.  There are some clear lessons learned and best practices that can support school administrators to become better strategic school safety leaders and communicators. And I created an approach to begin the process in roughly one hour of training time – about the average amount of time school leaders often seem to be able to allocate for leadership training topics.

But it does require superintendents, principals, and other school leaders to allocate the time for training by professionals with an understanding of school climate and operations, school security and emergency preparedness best practices, school community relations, and political savvy. Many security generalist consultants can do an assessment of school physical security hardware and equipment needs, but fewer have the unique combination of all these other areas.

So, what is the motivation for school leaders to allocate the time for such training?

Simple: If we don’t better support superintendents and principals in becoming strategic school safety leaders and communicators, they will lose the trust and confidence of parents, students, staff, and their school communities. They might also lose their jobs.

And in rare low-probability but high-impact school safety incidents, they also risk losing the lives of children and educators.

Dr. Kenneth S. Trump is President of National School Safety and Security Services  

National School Safety and Security Services

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4 thoughts on “Communicating school safety to parents: Superintendents and principals need strategic support on what to say, how to say it, and when to say it

  1. Rich Oppegaard says:

    Dr. Trump,
    This article is the most honest I have ever read. I forwarded it to the superintendent of the district I just retired from. Thank you.

    1. Ken Trump says:

      Thanks, Rich, and congrats on your retirement!

  2. Peter Pochowski says:

    Congratulations, DR. Ken! While I retired several years ago, my heart remains in the school security business, and I follow everything I can. I am comforted knowing you are still in the trenches and now have entered the halls of higher learning. A bigger bully pulpit for the master!!! Good speed on your mission, Ken.

    1. Ken Trump says:

      Thanks for reaching out, Pete. I hope retirement is treating you well. You certainly earned and deserve it. Stay safe and thanks for your kind words.

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