The Role of School Boards and Superintendents in Crisis Management
School boards and superintendents must be well versed in safety and crisis management because they are the leaders who are held accountable.
When it comes to keeping our kids safe, we all have a role to play. For school board members and superintendents, there has never been a time when so much is at stake. Yet, for all the school safety training happening around the country that focuses on the important discussions of prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery, there is a lack of crisis management training and lessons learned shared with leaders, those with the ultimate responsibility.
Many school board members have limited knowledge about the state of school safety, the seriousness of threats impacting schools, and the consequence of changing discipline strategies at odds with the emerging promising practice of threat assessment. The social emotional concerns in schools today impact educational time, climate, culture, and school safety.
These are just some of the important issues of the day, at a time when school violence is increasing at an alarming rate. School board members and superintendents must be well versed in school safety because at the end of the day, it is our leaders who are held accountable.
It is also important that school boards learn about the safety issues impacting their district annually both in public and executive session board meetings. The school safety discussion is an important opportunity to tell your district’s story about what you are doing to protect and support students and staff, while the executive session is an opportunity to have a direct, open, and honest discussion of confidential security arrangements and the specific and emerging threats facing schools. Both conversations are necessary for good governance and policy. Failure to understand the changing landscape of school safety limits a district’s ability to effectively operate in the world of prevention.
On the surface, crisis management may seem as if it is a one-size-fits-all decision matrix, but in a K-12 system, every issue is magnified, every decision is scrutinized, and every emotion is on full display when our most innocent are impacted, often for life. The crisis traps are many, and failure to effectively manage the crisis can lead to “panic management.”
For a system built on organizational structure and consistency, where everything and everyone has its place and purpose, the lasting impact of loss of life and lost trust, litigation, and legislation reverberates for years.
5 School Crisis Management Traps to Avoid
1. Not having a strong crisis communications plan
A community’s perception of how a district manages a crisis is often defined by what we say and, more importantly, by what we don’t say. Somewhere along the way, school leaders have become so concerned about litigation that they often fail to address the media and even the school community, leaving lingering questions that lead to greater frustration and lost trust. Trust is hard to earn and harder to keep, and lost trust limits the effectiveness of a school board and superintendent.
A strong crisis communications plan is critical to any chance of success, and great leaders are visible to their students, staff, families, and community. Understand early who the best spokesperson on behalf of the district is going to be. During the initial press conference, a principal should never face the media alone without the superintendent. While it is the principal who should be the voice of the school, the superintendent must be the voice for the district.
The school board president, at a minimum, should stand with the superintendent. If the school board decides to add its voice, then the school board president speaks to the media on behalf of the board.
2. Leading by headlines
Too often districts lead by headlines following a tragedy and fail to manage the crisis at hand. Manage what you see and what you know at the time. Understand that the changing narrative can often be managed by a point person who can correct misleading or wrong fact sets quickly without detracting from the crisis management work.
A good crisis team doesn’t allow soundbites to detract from the work, and a good spokesperson can correct the record during regular communication updates to parents, staff, and students. Remember, there is no such thing as internal communications. Internal messages will be sent to the media within moments of receipt, so whatever you say internally must be something you can also discuss externally.
3. Focusing on politics rather than student and staff recovery
Tragedy is not a political opportunity for school districts. There will be others that take up that space in the immediate aftermath, but our work as leaders is to find a way through recovery, focusing on our people so our students and staff can return to learn. Getting caught up in the political debate takes time away from your crisis management responsibilities.
There will be time in the aftermath of a tragedy to determine how best to use the voice of the district, but it is not in the immediacy when emotions are high. No matter the position we take, half of our families will be upset.
4. Not vetting business partnerships
School safety is a multibillion dollar-a-year growth industry, and everyone will want to sell you the next great product to save your life. There are trusted and vetted partners, and there are also those that would profit from tragedy with less than effective safety solutions. Know who you are working with and trust those you have longstanding relationships with. Ask other districts for recommendations and understand the problem before you seek a solution that will cause you to overspend the limited dollars you have available.
Are those who you’re doing business with trying to make a name for their company, using your tragedy to market their product? If the answer is yes, run! Focus on mission-aligned partnerships with businesses who are not offering something free for the school impacted by tragedy but who are interested in making sure all schools in the district have the same opportunity for safety.
Strong collaborative partnerships with businesses who will be there for you in the long term are an essential service that add value.
5. Saying ‘yes’ when you should say ‘no’
It is ok to say no! Give yourself grace and don’t feel like you need to say yes to everyone and everything. Organizations, businesses, nonprofits, and others will offer you support you didn’t know you needed. Most offers will be with good intention, while others will do things in your school’s/tragedy’s name that you won’t be comfortable being associated with. You do not have to say yes to everything.
The questions you should ask are: “What makes sense for our school? What will help our students and staff recover and be able to return to learn?”
A delicate but important conversation that every district crisis team will need to have is about the concept that a politician that isn’t adding value doesn’t need to be there. You will know quickly who is there for a soundbite and who is there to make a difference, and every tragedy has both. Be open to the possibility that the one who is providing the most support may be the least likely candidate to do so.
Success or Failure in School Safety and Crisis Management Is Foundational
The executive limitations or guardrails that a school board has in place, the board policies, the district practices, and the school procedures set the climate and culture for a prepared school response to any emergency. Board-driven, superintendent-led school safety is always the most effective model. When it becomes interlinked with a positive learning environment that includes kind, caring, and trusted staff, the school will be more prepared, empowering administration, educators, and students alike to own their own safety.
There is limited time to win back your school after tragedy. Success or failure will come down to leadership, people, communications, and intentionality. Understand that the decisions you make in the first 10 days following a tragedy can define your next five years. The greatest difficulty for leaders is keeping the focus on the main thing (the impacted school) while never taking your eye off the other main thing (the entire district).
Your decisions have real-life consequences, and you will model the behavior for your cabinet/crisis team. Consider bringing in a crisis facilitator to help your leadership team navigate the perilous path to recovery. Small missteps can have serious implications, and you have a district of kids and educators, parents, and community counting on you.
Never Forget Those We Have Lost
District leaders are sometimes advised not to talk with families whose loved ones have died in our schools for fear of litigation. Sometimes, district leaders don’t talk with families because the anger and grief directed at us is overwhelming on a personal level. While there is nothing we can say or do to change the outcome after tragedy, we can engage and be present. Following tragedy, families who have suffered great loss often feel isolated from the school, compounding the grief they are experiencing. Find the balance and put the effort into supporting the victims.
There is no shortage of crisis management issues facing our schools today. The good news is that the lessons learned are out there, but for others to learn, we need to be willing to share our failures and successes.
Crisis management demands we check our egos at the door. In the end, what matters is that you do all that you can to live in the world of prevention because tragedy is just too damn hard.
John McDonald is the COO of the Council for the School Safety Leadership. The Council for School Safety Leadership is a Missouri School Board Association nonprofit initiative, providing crisis response solutions to school district leaders across the U.S. For more information or if your district needs support during a crisis or in the aftermath of tragedy, please visit www.cssleadership.org
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