Communication between families and school staff used to be sending home handouts with students. Then came email. Now, people can follow school districts, administrators, schools and staff on Twitter, friend them on Facebook and sign up for text message alerts.
It’s a whole new landscape, one that gets even cloudier when the issue of student safety is involved.
“We’re just in a more globalized world and the communication, the news, is so instantaneous,” said John Speer, superintendent of the College Community School District. “Schools have to be more proactive now than they’ve had to be.”
Speer witnessed this convergence in January, when parents raised concerns about increased police presence at Prairie High School following a student threatening a peer.
For the Linn-Mar Community School District, electronic messages led administrators to request additional law enforcement presence at Linn-Mar High School in January.
“We always try to err on the side of precaution. We’re always going to do more than we would’ve done 10 years ago, just because the nature of everything has changed,” said Katie Mulholland, superintendent of the Linn-Mar Community School District.
Mulholland was tight-lipped about the incident and the nature of the messages, except to say that she “wouldn’t characterize it” as a threat and that the district and law enforcement are not done dealing with the situation.
One thing Mulholland spoke freely about was how media complicate dealing with these “sensitive situations.”
“Media has a profound effect on making sure we’re more than covered,” she said. “We’re more cautious than we have been in the past.”
Students and families tipped off local media, including The Gazette, about both situations. Administrators in the districts released statements soon after the safe resolution of the situation. In these events, faculty had not communicated to parents before the decision to step-up police presence.
Linn-Mar administrators also requested increased law enforcement earlier this school year, in regards to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 26 students and staff members dead. The impetus for Linn-Mar’s request was “without any specific reason except to show that both Linn-Mar and the Marion Police Department are dedicated to the safety and security of our students and staff,” according to the aforementioned district statement.
“There is no amount of communication that you can provide that will satisfy the constituents,” Mulholland said. “It’s always going to be increased presence, you’re going to see them off and on … We’re not going to announce, ‘Well today we’re going to have half a dozen police officers in the high school.’ It’s part of the ways we do business. Could you imagine how that looks on our website?”
Jennifer Markley, mother of two students at Linn-Mar High School, was grateful for the stepped-up security but took issue with the way the district handled communication.
“I think they should’ve been straightforward and let us know that there was a threat,” she said, adding that she may have considered keeping her daughters home from school had she been aware of the safety concern. “I think the parents need to be informed of what’s going on.”
With its instant nature and wide reach, social media also can play a unique role in stoking conflicts.
“Now social media keeps (a fight) going and provides a venue for lots of other people to weigh in on it and to perhaps even expand outside and to other school districts,” said Lt. Tobey Harrison, with the Cedar Rapids Police Department. “That’s one of the major benefits of the school resource officer, is that they’re able to track and keep a handle on a lot of those issues.”
Superintendent Speer likened social media and electronic messaging to a giant game of Telephone, where a message begins as fact and ends up as something different.
“I think it’s very easy to unintentionally change what’s going on,” Speer said.
The pervasiveness of social media has not changed the way officers approach school safety issues, said Harrison, who primarily visits buildings in the Cedar Rapids and College Community school districts.
Linn-Mar has gone as far as having staff instruct students to turn off and put away their mobile devices “for certain crisis situations,” Mulholland said.
In her estimation, family members can worsen a security situation without realizing it. Mulholland referred to an actual lockdown situation in the district in which a parent came to the campus and became a potential additional threat or vulnerability.
“That’s exactly why we don’t need kids texting their parents and telling them what’s going on, because they create another problem when we’re trying to keep people safe inside,” she said.
Keeping the message straight can be difficult when students are witnessing a dangerous situation and can text or tweet information faster than administrators are aware of it, a possible reality Speer acknowledged. That means the district’s messaging mechanism needs to move faster.
“I think it’s more information to get the correct information out on the front end,” he said. “The only way to combat false or misleading information is with accurate information.”