Managing the Unimaginable: Crisis Communications After An Active Shooter Incident

Here’s how one Alabama middle school was able to effectively handle crisis communications in response to a shooting on campus.

Nobody ever thinks it can happen to them. But it can, and it did at Discovery Middle School in Madison, Ala., on Friday, Feb. 5, 2010.

  • 1:40 p.m.: The bell rang for class change and extended break for more than 1,000 students.
  • 1:45 p.m.: In the ninth-grade wing, a student walked up behind another student in the crowded hall and fired a .22-caliber handgun, inflicting wounds that would prove to be fatal.
  • 1:46p.m.: The first call was made to 9-1-1.
  • 1:48 p.m.: Emergency responders arrived at the school, which was already in lockdown. The immediate threat of further violence was over. Students and staff had done exactly what they were trained to do and done it flawlessly. Adults had put themselves in harm’s way to apprehend the shooter. Everyone else was safe.
  • 1:50 p.m.: The crisis response began.

The first thing that matters in a severe crisis is always the safety and well-being of the students and employees. With the Discovery Middle School shooting, since the emergency procedures had been executed so well, everyone was secure in locked classrooms, but there was still the fear of the unknown. This is where technology came into play for the first line of communication.

Although under normal circumstances use of cell phones is not allowed at school, clearly these were not normal circumstances. Students were texting each other and their families while still in lockdown since only a handful of students had witnessed the actual incident. Most students only knew “something” had happened because school officials called a code red, sending everyone to immediate lockdown.

Having access to immediate communication through cell phones alleviated panic both inside the school and out in the community. It was the perfect use of available technology to get instant information.

Since most parents already knew their children were safe, there was not a massive rush to the campus by frantic parents. Certainly, many came and were clearly upset, but they realized that school administrators and law enforcement officials were doing their jobs. It would take time to go through the classrooms, identify eyewitnesses and direct them to meet with the proper authorities, and then dismiss all the students from the school. 

Personal Emotions Were Appropriately Managed

A significant part of my public relations practice involves working in crisis management and media relations, but with this situation, circumstances were different. My younger son is in ninth grade at the school and was in very close proximity to the shooting. My husband is also the band director there, and the shooting occurred just outside the band room. He was part of the immediate response.

While my situation was intensely personal, nearly everyone on the core crisis response team had similar close connections to the incident. It was absolutely imperative that we all put our personal feelings and reactions aside in order to best serve the students, families and our community.

Off-Campus Colleagues Helped Monitor the Media

Because instant information was already playing a huge role in this incident, I enlisted the help of some PR colleagues on the “outside” to monitor the local and national media, chat rooms, Facebook, etc., so we would know what was being said and by whom. It would have been impossible to monitor all that was happening on TV and online while working with the core team inside.

Having information constantly fed to me let us know what issues were popping up that needed to be addressed and helped us develop the overall response strategy.

Public Kept Informed on Developments Via Web Site, Listserv

Although in private practice now, I was in school public relations during the Columbine shootings. I had the benefit of lessons learned during that tragedy, and the communications team there reinforced that continual dialogue was key to gaining public support quickly.

From the beginning of the Discovery Middle School incident, constant updates on both the school system Web site and the city Web site helped get information out to parents and to the community. We also used the school system listserv already in place to send special information to parents as needed.

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