Sharon school district needs lesson in communications

MICHAEL ROKNICK | HeraldAs word spread that students at Case Avenue Elementary School in Sharon were about to be dismissed, parents and guardians rushed to the buildings’ main entrance. The school dismissed students around 2:20 p.m., 10 minutes early after enduring a lockdown for much of the day.

WE’RE all thankful Tuesday’s lockdown of all four Sharon district schools, after receiving threatening calls, ended well. Police continue to investigate, but no one was injured. No weapons or explosives were found. Kids left school on time. 

Many anxious parents, however, including roughly 50 outside Case Avenue Elementary School, were left in the dark. The district didn’t officially notify them of the lockdown, using the school’s website, until more than two hours after it started at about 11:20 a.m. 

To be fair, the school district, and police, appeared to handle the mechanics of the lockdown well.  The district fell way short, however, in alerting and informing the public.  

In an age of instant and ubiquitous communication, those who want to control the message need to get in front of it, not wait for misinformation to dominate the narrative. Almost immediately after the schools locked down, information started to dribble out, largely through text messages from students and teachers. Meantime, the school district’s silence created a vacuum ripe for rumors and inaccuracies.  

School Superintendent Michael Calla said the district followed protocol.  If so, the district’s information protocol needs to change: Communications with parents should start almost immediately. 

The Standard Response Protocol of every school district differs.  The most effective protocols include a designated person or team quickly sending parents alerts via phone, text, and email, informing them of a lockdown, shelter-in-place, evacuation, or other emergency. Messages could go through an emergency notification system. Robocalls are another option.  District officials could ask parents and high school students for other recommendations.  

The initial message should be short, providing only the basics and stating there will be “more to come.” A communications person or team then provide updates as needed, until the emergency is resolved.  Later, the district should give parents and guardians a final overview, including suggestions for how they should respond.  

Calla said parents should have stayed home, but what did he expect them to do? They were fearful of their children’s safety and unable to get a straight answer. Calla was correct in saying parents at the scene could add to the risks. But the way to minimize their presence was to keep them informed and explain why they should stay away from the school. Silence had the opposite effect. 

Nationwide, school lockdowns, following external threats, have become increasingly common. Generally, they are pranks. With the safety of children at stake, however, every one has to be taken seriously by the school, police, and community. 

On Wednesday, Calla posted a note on the school district’s website. Not surprisingly, he took no responsibility for the confusion. Instead, he blamed the media for reporting what happened. That’s not leadership. 

Real leadership would acknowledge the problem and develop a better communications protocol.  That’s exactly what the Sharon School District should do. 

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