Mum of teen found hanged days before 16th birthday believes he was ‘assaulted by teachers’ (June 10)
Every school is vulnerable to crises and needs to have clear policies for both assessing and managing the risks that it faces and for external communication in a crisis.
Risks will vary from school to school but it could include fire, adverse weather, release of hazardous substances, students leaving school without permission, loss of vital data, student or staff injury or illness, malicious use of IT systems, and police investigations.
In order to manage incidents, schools need a clear line of command (at any time of day or year), rapid access to emergency services, complete registers of staff and students, contact details of parents and access to both local media and the school’s own communication channels and a process for closing the school and safely returning children to their homes.
All policies are only useful if people are aware of them. Copies of the policies should be widely available, discussed, taken on trips and kept at senior leaders’ homes. It’s vital that key members of the school community are aware of what to do in a crisis situation and who to look to for key decisions. Many crises occur on school trips and those leading trips need to be briefed before departure and given 24-hour emergency contact details.
Schools should test their crisis procedures on a regular basis. This can best be done through simulation exercises – at the very least senior managers need to test that they can access key data and communications channels quickly.
While many crises come without warning, others can escalate over time. These often involve disgruntled parents or students turning to local or social media to air grievances. Consulting widely before introducing changes in school, monitoring social media, and encouraging parents to come directly to the school with complaints can give you advance warning.
5. Be proactive in the short-term
Following a crisis, it is important that schools can quickly send out a statement to all affected stakeholders including governors, staff and parents. This should acknowledge the incident (without admitting blame or identifying individuals) and set out the steps the school is taking in response. Parents and staff should be advised what they should do in the short term, and where relevant, what support is available for students. Schools should monitor media (including social media) and correct factual errors (without engaging in wider discussions).
Schools should resist the temptation to give a ‘no comment’ statement as the media will then increase pressure on parents, staff and others to comment. Staff should however be reminded of the need not to comment beyond referring the media to the agreed statement. As more information about an incident comes to light, the school should update its statement, inform stakeholders and arrange meetings to share information with them.
6. Seek Expert Advice
In any incident it is important that schools seek external expertise. Schools that are maintained by their local authority will be able to access experts in communications, legal and insurance issue and student support. Academies and free schools should have agreed relationships with experts in these areas.
7. Stick to long-term reputation-building
There is a clear temptation for a school that has had a crisis to ‘shut up shop’ and stop communicating with the media and other stakeholders. However, it is vital that schools look to move forward and keep focus on the positive messages that are part of their marketing plan. Apart from anything else, negative stories in the media will remain high up on internet searches for a long time if there are no positive stories to replace them. It is of course, vital that the school reflects on the crisis and works out what it could have done better.