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Communicating About School Lockdowns: 5 Tips from 2019's Top Stories

This week we’re taking a look back at the major trends and issues of 2019 by sharing the top 5 TrustED stories of the year. Here is story #4. 

No matter where a student goes to school, some experiences are universal: lunch in the cafeteria, rides on the school bus, recess.

But as the threat of school violence continues to cast a long shadow, another, more worrisome experience is becoming commonplace: the school lockdown.

At least 4 million students experienced a school lockdown in the 2017-2018 school year, according to a recent Washington Post analysis. That’s more than 6,200 individual lockdowns–or, an average of 16 school campuses locked down daily.

While the majority of school lockdowns end without incident, the fear students experience is all too real. In the face of a new school security threat, parents also face the fear and uncertainty of not knowing what is happening to their children.

School leaders and staff walk a fine line during lockdowns, often with two competing priorities–keeping students safe and keeping parents informed.

To help, our editors have assembled the following five tips–based on conversations with leading researchers and school leaders–for communicating before, during, and after a school lockdown occurs.

1. Develop a security protocol and stick to it.

While every school leader hopes a violent incident won’t happen on their campus, it is important to prepare as if one is inevitable. That means developing a comprehensive protocol for every possible safety scenario, drilling and training for that scenario, and steadfastly sticking to that plan if and when an incident does occur.

“Whatever safety protocols you have–it’s not enough to have them, you need to make sure that you are following them,” says Dr. David Blaiklock, head of research at K12 Insight. “It’s a matter of making sure that your entry points into your building are contained and controlled, because once somebody that you don’t want to be is in your building, that’s when you lose control.”

2. Make sure that your community–especially parents–know the plan.

To reduce parent anxiety around safety, school leaders must ensure that parents believe a strong security protocol exists. That means “making people aware that 1) there is a plan in place, 2) that people know what the plan is, and 3) that the plan is getting practiced,” says Dr. Blaiklock. School leaders should also consider inviting parents and others into the planning process by giving them means to ask questions, pose concerns, and easily report weaknesses, such as unlocked doors on campus.

3. Secure first. Communicate second.

“When there is a real threat or a concern or a crisis at a school, the top priority is always going to be–as it should be–keeping students and staff safe. That’s job one. Communications is going to come in second,” explains Dr. Nora Carr, chief of staff at Guilford County Schools in North Carolina and a national expert in school security and communications.

School districts should set clear expectations about these priorities with parents and community members, Carr says, by reminding them “that the teacher, the principal, the support staff, administrators, law enforcement, right then and there–they are doing what they need to do take care of kids and take care of people.”

4. Give parents a safe place to ask questions–and get answers.

School lockdowns and security incidents always breed rumors. We see this in the real-time news coverage of school shootings. The stories that are initially released are often dramatically different from the real story that emerges days or weeks after the event. In today’s environment, social media only fans the flames of misinformation.

“It is a lot more difficult to share accurate information, and verified information, then it is to share rumors and unverified information,” says Dr. Carr, “and we have to share accurate information. Sometimes that takes more time than we’d like it to take.”

To tamp down on the inevitable spread of rumors and misinformation, school leaders should provide safe spaces, where parents can pose critical questions–before, during, and after incidents–and set expectations for how critical information will be released to the public. Whether via an online portal on the school district website, a dedicated account or hashtag on social media, or some other channel, parents need to know where to go for the most accurate information about their child’s school, especially in times of crisis or concern. For their part, school leaders need to constantly remind community members how and where that information will be shared.

5. Review and revamp outdated protocols.

“School safety is never a one and done deal,” says former school district superintendent Dr. Gerald Dawkins. “It has to be continuous.”

While no one wants to face a security threat in their schools, statistics show that such incidents are becoming increasingly inevitable. Every new lockdown or incident brings with it the opportunity to improve existing school security and communications protocols. The process of reviewing your safety protocols should include input from students, parents, and staff, as well as constant communication about any potential updates to your plan.

Are you paying close attention to school security this year? Have any tips you think we missed? Share them in the comments.

To see how K12 Insight partners with schools to give parents and students a voice in school safety conversations, sign up for a free consult today.