Superintendents: Communication key to managing crises

In a panel discussion, Maine school superintendents say an emphasis on communication kept bad situations from becoming worse.

AUGUSTA – When a teacher’s aide brought a gun to Portland’s Riverton Community School in 2009, a top priority for Superintendent James Morse was crafting a clear, timely communication for parents so they’d know their children were safe.

“The message had to be one that deescalated the situation,” Morse said. “I knew if the message got home through children, it would become escalated to the point where it would be unbearable for the school.”

For school districts, smart and pre-planned communication with emergency responders, parents, the media and the public can keep a crisis situation that’s already overwhelming from becoming unmanageable.

That was the message from Morse and two other Maine school superintendents who participated in a panel discussion on crisis communications April 29 at the third annual Maine Partners in Emergency Preparedness conference at the Augusta Civic Center. The discussion was moderated by Maine Emergency Management Agency public information officer Lynette Miller and Maine Department of Education communications director David Connerty-Marin.

After instructing the Riverton principal to call police, Morse asked her to write a notice to send home to parents. Around the same time, Morse recorded a voice message parents would receive through the Portland Police Department’s automatic dial system.

He also prepared to notify the news media so the Portland School Department would remain in control of the story.

“If you don’t feed the dragon, it will eat you,” Morse said. “Especially in a city like Portland, (the news media) are all over every single issue.”

When it comes to communicating in a crisis, he said, it’s not only the message that’s important. It’s how it’s communicated.

“You can’t get excited in those messages,” Morse said. “You have to be able to relay those facts.”

Advance crisis planning and a productive working relationship with police proved critical to successfully managing the violation of federal law that took place at the Portland elementary school, Morse said.

“If you don’t have those and you’re winging it, you’re going to end up in a communications disaster,” he said of crisis management plans. “Or worse, a child or an adult is going to be hurt.”

Still, Morse said, “no matter how well written the plan is, it will never suffice when you’re facing the crisis.”

Children were in direct danger in October 2008 when Raymond Freve had to activate his district’s emergency management plans. A gunman was holding a fifth-grade classroom hostage at Stockton Springs Elementary School.

“We had a plan for communicating, for what we were going to do, and we had practiced it,” said Freve, who’s now superintendent of Houlton-based School Administrative District 29. “Ninety percent of that incident was dominated by communications.”

The early part of handling the hostage situation had gone right, Freve said. A school secretary had – as she was trained – called police, and school officials had ceded control of the building to law enforcement, who negotiated the students’ release.

As superintendent, Freve had to decide with whom he planned to communicate first. He chose parents.

“We had parents who did not care if nobody was hurt,” he said. “They wanted to see their child.”

But he didn’t forget the news media; he told reporters he planned to brief them in short order.

“As long as they’re promised something, and you follow up,” Freve said, school officials won’t be bombarded with questions.

Superintendent John Davis of Jackman-based SAD 12 decided he needed to disclose as much information as possible earlier this year when a district kindergarten teacher was charged with sexual exploitation of a minor and possession of sexually explicit materials.

“Newspapers will fill their space,” Davis said, “and they will fill their space whether you assist them or not.”

When the charges against the teacher became public, SAD 12 immediately posted the information on its website and held a public meeting to inform parents. The district also sent out press releases to the news media, relying on one newspaper reporter in particular to spread the news.

“We insisted that we get as much information out that was possible,” Davis said. “We ran it through the State Police, and if they didn’t object, we released that information. We held nothing back.”

The release of information controlled a rumor mill that could have easily gotten out of hand, Davis said.

It also helped the district make sure that the rights of the accused weren’t violated. In its communications, SAD 12 was careful to point out that the kindergarten teacher had not yet been convicted.

“We were going to protect the rights of everybody,” Davis said, “including the accused.”

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