I have been involved in emergency management for the past 15-plus years. I have been involved in too many to count after-action reviews throughout my 34-year career in law enforcement and as a school safety coordinator. In the vast majority, if not all of them, the number one issue that needed to be addressed was communication: “I didn’t get the information I needed”; “You didn’t tell me that”; “I didn’t know that”; you get the point. Depending on the situation, you typically can’t give enough information to those who need it. That being said, what can we do to ensure all of the priority stakeholders get what they need to act upon or make a decision?
What we communicate during an emergency can have both long-term and short-term impacts, both positively and negatively. Sometimes, more importantly, it is what we don’t say that has the greatest impact. One of the primary reasons I was hired as a School Safety Coordinator after retiring from law enforcement was the lack of communication to parents from a school that had an incident. This incident caused a decline in parents' trust in the school's efforts to protect their children. This reason for hiring me was not communicated to me, but it was one of the first tasks that I was assigned; top on their priority list.
We have talked extensively about communicating with the partners who are going to help you make your schools safer; staff and students, first responders, mental health professionals, community-based organizations, etc. Therefore, I want to spend some time focussing on those who really should be more actively involved in every aspect of school safety; the parents. While responding and management of an emergency should be your initial top priorities, communicating with the parents of your students ranks right up there. Yet communication with parents is often an afterthought and hastily thrown together. Let’s explore how we can help work the communication piece into every emergency step.
Every good safety program, whether it is in a school setting or not, requires a good Communication Plan (Comms Plan). The purpose of the Comms Plan is to provide guidance on how communication should occur during a crisis or emergency. Like all the other aspects of your safety plan, the Comms Plan should delineate responsibilities and expectations, and identify the primary stakeholders. The Comms Plan can also recommend the content of what should be said to each stakeholder group. In fact, many Comms Plans include recommended templated messages and intervals to send those messages out.
As an example: At the initial onset of an emergency, sending parents a quick message to advise them of the incident and what you want them to do and not, can be very helpful. Also send them to a place, physical location or website, where they can get better, more accurate information. If you don’t give them what they are looking for, they will seek it out. That rarely benefits them or you very much. Communicating early and often is the method I have used successfully quite often. So, how can we actually turn our parents into our advocates through communication?
Like every other emergency procedure, having your stakeholders involved as much as possible, can help you tremendously, and including your parents in this process is no different. So how do we get them involved and how do they participate in a manner that is mutually beneficial? The following outlines a few steps for you to consider when trying to proactively engage your parents with your safety program through communications:
Understand, with all of the attention schools are receiving regarding acts of violence, parents have anxiety about sending their children to school. In many cases, some parents will make decisions as to whether to send their children to your school or a different school based on their perception of how safe their children are going to be at school. Communication with your parents will go a long way to relieve their anxieties and stress. However, communication alone will not be enough; your actions will ultimately determine how parents and the community perceive how safe your schools are.