Focus

Texting’s Effects on School Crisis Announcements

by CHARLES M. JAKSEC

After learning of the death of one of her most popular teachers in an overnight car accident, a middle school principal waits anxiously as police officers (who are at the teacher’s residence) notify the deceased’s next of kin, which would allow an official statement to be made.

 

Unfortunately, while awaiting contact from the police, the principal observes her school community is becoming increasingly aware of the teacher’s death via text messaging. Students are congregating in hallways, some weeping openly. One teacher contacts the main office and reports that classes are being disturbed by these students.

 

Focus_JaksecChuck Jaksec

In addition, several students arrive at the main office to question the school’s perceived indifference to the teacher’s death. Several inaccurate rumors are circulating, further agitating some students. The principal learns from the school’s resource officer that students are beginning to exit campus without permission.

Emotional Tone
Any educator who has dealt with a school crisis will agree that no two situations are alike. Each crisis has its own variables. Suffice it to say, school crisis intervention carries plenty of unpredictability.

Still, most schools attempt to follow pre-established procedures to support their students and staff in the wake of a crisis. These steps could include:

  • identifying support personnel and venues from which support will be -rendered;
  • establishing logistical plans; and
  • offering counseling during a crisis aftermath.

One task that is paramount for school administrators is the dissemination of public information about the situation with the school population. Administrators want to control the sharing of pertinent information through their own announcements.

The content, manner and timing of crisis announcements can set the emotional tone on campus and ultimately influence the school community’s response to the crisis. Especially at the secondary level, students want information in real time. Subsequently, a premature or delayed announcement can present huge concerns. Ironically, even though most schools may be ready with crisis intervention, these same schools may experience turbulence during an actual crisis simply due to the timing of an announcement.

Essential Timing
The ramifications of premature announcements could prevent opportunities for school personnel to gather much needed information regarding the crisis. For instance, a premature announcement could conflict with the victim’s next of kin being first notified by the authorities. In addition, a premature announcement also can limit preparation time for crisis responders to set up support venues.

Conversely, a delayed announcement can enable wild rumors to circulate or allow the school population to perceive a lack of concern from school officials. Late announcements can result in uncontrolled student movement — congregation in hallways, descent on support venues while unsupervised or departure from campus.

Ultimately, the announcement of an overnight or early-morning crisis should be done early in the school day when all support services are in place and accurate information has been collected. Unfortunately, the emergence of Twitter and instant messaging dramatically influences crisis intervention.

Instant Communication
The effects of texting are becoming ever-more obvious. While a school leader’s first responsibility is the management of the school’s population, the pressure to maintain control of the campus under duress is even greater when dealing with issues brought about by texting. How does this occur?

In less tech-savvy ages, when a crisis situation affected a school population, administrators could control the dissemination of information on campus via verbal announcements. With text messaging capabilities in the hands of most today, students and faculty are instantly cognizant of minute-by-minute developments, whether on or off campus. Understandably, this creates enormous difficulties for administrators as they face students knowing the details of an unfolding situation before they do!

Adding to this complication is the fact that information transmitted via text message often is inaccurate, thus rumors influence the effective management of the campus population. The use of texting rarely affords school officials additional time to collect information and solidify crisis response plans. It becomes a stressful race against time.

Minimizing Impact
When erroneous information via texting contaminates the campus, what options do site administrators have for dealing with an emotionally charged and unstable student population?

  • Inform a superior (area director, superintendent, etc.) of the situation and discuss whether to proceed with an official announcement or delay. Ask police or school security to share information as soon as it becomes available.
  • Inform teachers via e-mail of the crisis situation and ask them to monitor cell phone usage in their classrooms.
  • Be aware, whenever discussing the situation, of the presence of students, student assistants or school staff who might spread information before it is ready to be accurately and appropriately disseminated.
  • Ask students to remain in their classrooms and delay class changes if the student population is volatile.
  • When details are leaking, make a blanket announcement or have classroom teachers make an announcement along these lines: “There is a lot of misinformation on campus regarding an accident that occurred this morning. We do not know details at this time, but be assured we will release details as soon as we receive them. Remember, you should not be texting or using your cell phone at this time.”
  • Assign all available personnel to monitor school hallways if students are congregating or trying to leave campus without permission.
  • Ask crisis interventionists to be in place in counseling venues prior to the official announcement being made and be ready to accommodate a significant number of students who will require support.

Chuck Jaksec is a school social worker in Hillsborough County, Fla. and the author of Nine Critical Issues in Crisis Intervention. E-mail: Charles.Jaksec@sdhc.k12.fl.us.