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Ensuring School Safety: Podcast #2 Emphasizes the Role of Strong Communication

More than two months since Parkland, and the debate over schools safety wages on–with students at the forefront.

An important question for school districts is how best to communicate with parents, students, and community stakeholders about safe schools–before, during, and after violent incidents.

In the second part of our TrustED podcast series on school safety, we continue our conversation with Dr. Nora Carr, chief of staff at Guilford County Public Schools in North Carolina, and Dr. David Blaiklock, senior director of research at K12 Insight (K12 Insight produces TrustEd).

Dr. Carr and Dr. Blaiklock walk us through the important role that strong communication plays in school security–and why setting expectations with community members is so important to ensuring safe schools.

If you haven’t heard the first part of our school safety series, you can listen here. You can also read a full transcript of the story below.

Let us know what you think–and help us continue the conversation by leaving your comments below, or on social media.

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Episode 2 Transcript

Todd Kominiak: This is the TrustED podcast. I’m managing editor Todd Kominiak.

This is part two of our series on school safety. In our last episode, we talked with Dr. Nora Carr, chief of staff at Guilford County Public Schools in North Carolina and Dr. David Blaiklock, senior director of research at K12 Insight, about strategies for preventing and dealing with tragedies like the Parkland, Fla. school shooting. If you haven’t listened to that episode, you technically don’t need to to understand or enjoy this one–but it certainly helps.

Today we continue those conversations, but with a focus on communication. At the heart of any effective school safety plan says Dr. Carr, their needs to be strong relationships between schools, parents, and students.

Dr. Nora Carr: There’s always an urge when something horrific happens to immediately rush to lots of what seem like easy or obvious solutions. More school resource officers. Certainly it ignites the whole gun control debate. You start getting more calls for different technologies and things that help keep kids safe. And, anything we can do to secure our schools is a positive step that we need to do.

Again, I just want to emphasize that the relationship between children and adults in the schoolhouse is really, really important. It doesn’t sound as reassuring perhaps as adding lots of new technology, and I’m for design that really makes a difference on school safety. I think those things are important. I’m not discounting those. But, ultimately if a student knows something or is concerned about something and tells a trusted adult, and then that gets to the right authorities, we’re very fortunate. But, if you have the right kind of relationship when there is a credible threat, it can be investigated and people can intervene quickly and appropriately and that makes a huge difference.  

Kominiak: Developing strong relationships is dependant on a district’s ability to communicate with their community–both during the school safety planning process and during actual crises. In both cases, Dr. Carr and Dr. Blaiklock say it’s important for school leaders to set clear expectations. When it comes to planning, Dr. Blaiklock says it’s essential that districts engage everyone in the community–especially students and parents–in a comprehensive and systematic way.

Dr. David Blaiklock: There’s a model in research referred to as the Easton Model of Political Efficiency. The idea being that school and district leaders make decisions kind of in a black box and their decision–whatever policy–becomes an output. And then, whatever output they put out gets feedback. People are going to talk about it whether you want them to or not. And that feedback becomes input which then drives another decision. You want to be collecting that input in some kind of controlled and systematic manner.

Kominiak: Yes. Public feedback is crucial. But Blaiklock says the input of local or national experts is a must.

Blaiklock:There are people out there who have very strong backgrounds in safety and security and protocol and process. When you open that conversation up for public input and public feedback 1) you run the risk now of having people knowing your inner workings and being able to circumnavigate it and 2) it may not be the most effective way to go because you are looking to a committee of laypeople and what they think are good ideas or what they’re able to find on Google, as opposed to relying on people who have a lot of expertise in how to do this sort of work.

Kominiak: But Blaiklock says community members, especially parents and students, can still play a vital role in identifying holes in a school’s safety protocols.

Dr. Blaiklock: I think that probably a good place for public input to occur is to allow people to pull threads on safety and security. And so, if there’s a way for parents to report, “Hey, I think door six is being left unlocked,” or “I went to the building and they just let me in and walk right in and no one introduced themselves to me–no one asked me who I was or what I was doing there.” This may be an urban myth. I grew up near a fairly small town. Back in the mid-90’s or early 90’s, when the Walmart came, the word on the street was that Walmart was hiring people to come in and try to shoplift. So that they could find out where the holes in their security were. It’s a little bit more extreme than that, but the idea is using that public input–a nice, objective, kind, and friendly process–for people to say, “Hey, there’s a weakness here, I think.”

Kominiak: Dr. Carr says an important piece of an any effective safety strategy is determining how your district releases information to parents and other community partners in real time. Again, districts need to set clear expectations about how information will be released–something Carr says is easier said than done.

Dr. Carr: I think it’s also important–as much as I believe in communicating and using a variety of ways to do that–we also have to have, as parents and as community members, realistic expectations about what a school can do, what a principal can do and communicate at the same time. 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 at that point.

And, we certainly are trying to communicate more rapidly. We’re trying to use all the different channels and not hold up all the information until it’s all wrapped up in a bow at the end of the day. It’s very, very hard and it’s very, very scary when a school is locked down or something is going on at a campus and they don’t know what and they’re not able to get official word. But, keep in mind that the teachers, the principal, the support staff, the administrators, law enforcement, right then and there, they are doing what they need to do take care of kids and take care of people.

Kominiak: Districts must do all they can to ensure rumors and non-credible threats are addressed before they turn into full-blown communication crises or become disruptive to student learning.

Dr. Carr: You know, we had a situation where 300-400 kids either didn’t come to school or their parents took them out of school and it was all over a non-credible threat. It was all over rumors on social media. We’re so scared–and I understand that–but at the end of the day, it was a very chaotic day for students that didn’t need to be. So, one of things that we’re certainly trying to emphasize to our parents is that if there is a real crisis we will tell you.

Kominiak: In the end, the strength of a district’s safety plan is tied in large part to its ability to communicate with parents, students, staff, and other community stakeholders and partners. It’s essential that school districts have strong systems in place for communicating in real-time during crises–as well as during the safety planning process.

Dr. Blaiklock: There’s a time and place for community, parent, student input and feedback. It’s very beneficial to do it. It’s essential that it happens. But, there’s also a time where you need to kind of look to a group of experts who are really studied in whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish and work with them to kind of see what it is that they are going to recommend regarding safety. From the stakeholder input perspective, they are your eyes and ears in the community. And so, the more you can get them talking to you–in addition to each other–the better the information you’re going to have about how people feel about school safety, where the safety concerns are. And, that allows you to kind of address them and take them on and, in a very public way, share.

Kominiak: One of the most important aspects of school safety that requires a strong, open, and honest relationship both with parents and students is bullying prevention. We’ll have more on that in our next episode. How does your school or district engage your community on school safety planning? Do you have a system in place for fielding questions and concerns, as well as credible threats? Let us know. We’re on Twitter @K12trustED. We’re also on Facebook. And of course you can always reach out to us here.