Beyond the Alarm: Effective Crisis Comms in Schools

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Life Science
Sandra Burnett Hope MMBio 194B class

April 7, 2016

Photography by: Mark A. Philbrick/BYU Photo

Copyright BYU Photo 2016
All Rights Reserved (801)422-7322


By Emily Stenlund

SALEM, Ore. – On a beautiful spring day in March, South Salem High School entered an unexpected level-three lockdownthe highest possible lockdown level for a school. In a park only a couple of miles away, three students were shot, and police enforcement was assessing the scene. Aaron Harada and the crisis communications team dropped everything they were doing to meet in the district’s emergency operation center (EOC). Going in with little information on the incident, Aaron could feel the room was filled with tension and concern. 

Crisis communication is different for every organization. Most organizations deal with a product mishap, a delayed flight, or a CEO releasing a controversial statement. For a school district, a crisis can mean students’ lives are in their hands. In an interview with Aaron Harada (Director of Community Relations and Communications for Salem-Keizer Public Schools, SKPS) and Emily Reverman (Communications Manager for the district), they each discussed their experiences leading the team of primary communications responders to a crisis of any size for the school district. Not only do crises affect the stakeholders, but they can also affect those managing the crisis if there is no preparation. Aaron and Emily shared three key principles for handling a crisis for a school district shooting: having accurate information, communicating with empathy, and using the right channels to inform stakeholders. 

Having Accurate Information

In the EOC, Aaron and his team work alongside the district’s safety and risk management team and in close connection with law enforcement. The district’s work is critical and significantly impacts the community. This is why the district’s communication team often reviews local social media posts in situations like a lockdown to understand rumors or misinformation that might be circulating reports. During the events that initiated a lockdown at South Salem High School, all of this was done with the support of the entire communications team at SKPS. In this situation, the communications team was fighting with time because, as in all situations, students had the ability to and were texting their parents while in lockdown. Because this child-to-parent communication often comes more quickly than the team can verify accurate information and inform families, this understandably increases stress for families about the safety of their children. 

Communicating with Empathy

In a homicide situation for a school district, Emily highlighted that “school crises aren’t just an individual event. It spills into the next few days.” In this event, the district experienced many reports of threats across the school district in the following days. These reports create a sense of urgency for the communications team. They needed to be on top of the current situation and mitigate other reports presented in the next couple of days. Reports re made to law enforcement, school staff, or through the district’s access to the statewide platform, SafeOregon. Often, reports come from concerning social media posts, calls, or messages.

Tragically, the team learned that one of the students died after the shooting, and two of them sustained severe injuries. As one of the points of recovery from the lockdown at SSHS and the Bush Park crisis event, the district developed a video from Superintendent Andrea Castañeda, which incorporated both detailed facts and empathic commentary while highlighting the support from external sources to manage the crisis. Aaron noted that dealing with these situations with empathy is essential because a person must put themselves in the shoes of parents concerned about their children’s safety. Emily Reverman concludes that such crisis events are “not an isolated incident; it impacts the community.” 


Aaron spoke about the method of communication the district has developed with their stakeholders, including students, parents, and staff. The district uses ParentSquare, a platform that allows school district leaders, in coordination with school leadership, to notify stakeholders through email, calls, push notifications, and text messages. Through this platform, the district can  inform parents and families, staff, and students during crisis events in the school district. A crisis like this doesn’t stop with a single message to the stakeholders; ongoing communication, focused on support, continues into the next couple of days, weeks, or even months. 

When Aaron arrived at the District’s EOC, he didn’t know that everything was about to change for him and the people involved in the crisis. But this was a moment when he reinforced his commitment to empathy, channels, and the key to having accurate information in a crisis. These are the lessons that we as students can take with us as we enter the workforce and prepare to tackle crises, especially ones where lives are hanging in the balance. 


Sources: Video Message from Superintendent Andrea Castañeda, Click Here