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Risk in Schools: Prevention Starts with a Single Step

Risk mitigation. It’s an official-sounding phrase, often used to describe a simple challenge: How to prevent potential crises before they start.

At the top of every school leader’s priority list is student safety. But risk comes in many forms.

Student physical and mental health presents a full set of challenges and potential distractions. Teacher engagement and morale is another source. Social media is another. And don’t forget about declining enrollment. If parents and families don’t get a good feeling when they engage with your school or district, they can choose to take their business elsewhere. And many of them do.

There’s no shortage of technology tools to help with this sort of thing. In fact, school safety and security has ballooned into a $2.5-billion industry, says the Washington Post.  

But, while technology can help, true risk mitigation starts with something much more fundamental, says Dr. Nora Carr, chief of staff for Guilford County Schools in Greensboro, N.C.

“Anonymous tip lines, active shooter drills, armed police officers, door buzzers, panic alarms, shatter-proof glass, video cameras, metal detectors and wands, bullet proof doors, unarmed security associates, and school redesign to improve safety and security.

Still, parents remain afraid for their children while in our care.

We also haven’t spent enough time focusing on what truly keeps kids safe: trusting relationships with adults and positive, nurturing school climates that make social-emotional learning a priority.”

Dr. Carr and her team have made a commitment to improving school culture and climate, by focusing on stronger communication, and better customer experiences.

“What I can tell you is that when schools and departments get the reputation of being responsive, of being caring–even not giving the parents the answer they want, but giving them an answer and being consistent, it does make a difference,” Dr. Carr said in a recent podcast on school customer service.

Guilford County isn’t alone in its efforts to improve school culture and safety through a focus on stronger customer experiences.

In recent weeks, our editors have talked with dozens of school leaders who are prioritizing transparent, responsive communication between school staff and the communities they serve. In being proactive about how they communicate, school leaders aim to anticipate and address community concerns before they evolve into difficult, distracting, and sometimes dangerous safety and PR crises.

Here’s a few examples.

Turn safety into an ‘always-on’ conversation

In the wake of the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Fla., administrators at Klein ISD in Texas decided to engage its community in a conversation about safety.

So they launched Keep Klein Safe. Powered by Let’s Talk!, from K12 Insight, the online portal allows students, parents, staff, and others to report safety concerns, ask critical safety-related questions, or read frequently asked questions about the district’s safety policies and procedures. Often times, the feedback is received and responded to by the district’s chief of police himself, within minutes or hours, not days.

Justin Elbert, community relations manager at Klein, says the initiative helps reduce potential safety risks by bringing students and others into the conversation. “Students are our eyes and ears,” Elbert says. “They know their friends and their community better than we ever could, and we needed to find a way to tap into that.”

Give students a voice when they cry out for help

Finding a better way to support mental and social-emotional health concerns is a challenge for most school districts.

At the Temecula Valley Unified School District in California, administrators experienced the crises-saving power of stronger communication firsthand. In a matter of weeks, two different students used the same online portal powered by K12 Insight to share concerns about a fellow classmate who expressed suicidal thoughts.

Within seconds of those reports, Public Information Officer Laura Boss received a Critical Alert to her smartphone. The report came in after hours, explains Boss. But because it went straight to her phone, as opposed to an email inbox, she was able to immediately collaborate with the district’s school resource team on a response. Within minutes, an existing protocol for parent notification and intervention was put into action.

“It really is an epidemic that we’re seeing across our country–the mental health of our students,” Boss says. “Let’s Talk! affords us an opportunity to grow and gives students a safe place to start, so that we can bring in those other resources and try to help those who are reaching out.”

Go from unmitigated disaster to appreciation

Three years ago, Kaden Jacobs, director of communications for Georgia’s Richmond County School System, and his team had “an awful first day of school.”

The district’s transportation department was deluged with 1,000-plus inquiries from parents and community members, and administrators struggled to keep up. The local news eventually caught wind of the problem, and the appearance of negative headlines made their jobs harder still.

Like Klein ISD and Temecula Valley, Richmond County also turned to K12 Insight’s Let’s Talk!. Through a custom button installed on the school district’s transportation website, parents and others were empowered to ask questions and send feedback directly to school transportation officials.   

“In the past, if parents weren’t happy with an answer they received from district staff, they’d go to the deputy superintendent or the superintendent and say, ‘No one ever talked to me. No one ever called me back,” says Jacobs.

With a renewed focus on communication and customer service, the mood has changed. “I don’t think we’ve had one negative transportation story or even a story about transportation,” he says. He also reports that nearly 10 percent of community communications now come in the form of complements.

What steps is your school or district taking to mitigate potential safety and PR risks? Tell us in the comments.

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