Is Your School or District Prepared for the Next Online Threat?

I was scanning my Facebook page the other morning when I came across an alarming message from a friend:

“Bomb threat at my son’s elementary school. So freaked out for them. Elementary students evacuated. What is happening?!”

The threat, which was called into two schools—Bonnie Branch Elementary School and Elkridge Elementary School—both in Howard County, Md., forced the schools to evacuate as bomb-sniffing dogs combed the hallways in search of possible explosives.

As the scene unfolded, local parents received emails notifying them of the crisis. But those communications, which arrived more than an hour after the evacuation in some cases, didn’t reach parents fast enough. My friend said she found out about the threat from her oldest son who is enrolled at a nearby middle school.

No bomb was found, thankfully, but a 14-year-old resident was taken into custody for trespassing on school grounds, and allegedly calling in the threats.

What happened in Maryland can hardly be considered an isolated incident. That same day, a local news report revealed that schools in at least six other states had received similar threats. In Massachusetts, the FBI was called in to investigate threats received by schools in 15 communities. In December, the Los Angeles Unified School District shuttered all 900 of its schools to verify a threat received by members of the local school board.

In each case, the threats proved empty. But that doesn’t mean school officials take them any less seriously. In an age of heightened violence and terrorism, schools have a responsibility to ensure student safety and wellbeing. Part of that responsibility includes effectively communicating with parents and community members before, during and after crises situations.

Emails and texts are fine to push important information and policies out. But as new threats evolve, parents and others increasingly demand stronger, more proactive engagement from schools.

Considering ways to improve safety and communication in your district? Start by asking these three questions:

Do you have an early-warning system?                                                                                 It’s impossible to prevent every crisis. But is your district doing everything it can to stay ahead of the next threat? Do you have a system in place to monitor social media and other communications for comments that warrant further investigation or preemptive action? If a student or community member makes threats against your schools on social media, do you have a way of finding out about it first—before parents or, worse, the media start asking questions? Are you simply reacting to phone calls and headlines?

Can you reach parents quickly as information changes?
Crisis situations are fluid. When it comes to child safety, all parents want access to up-to-the-minute information. Email is good for broadcasting. But even those messages don’t reach parents fast enough. Phones are good, but unreliable. Do you have multiple ways to reach out to and connect with parents, so that they feel informed and connected in the face of change?

Do you invite feedback from the community?
The district’s responsibility doesn’t end once a crisis is averted. Parents and community members are going to have questions. Do you have a way to invite feedback and respond in earnest to their concerns? Show parents and others that you are committed to full transparency, and use their comments and suggestions to constantly improve your ability to lead under duress.

How prepared is your school or district for a crisis? Tell us in the comments.

Looking for a solution that can help you get out ahead of crises and invite community feedback? Check out Let’s Talk! and ask about our Flashpoint Alerts.

Author: Todd Kominiak

Todd Kominiak is Managing Editor of TrustED.

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