Life in the Media Frenzy: Balancing Crisis Management Perceptions and Realities
Thirteen years ago, when I first assumed the role as the crisis management coordinator at Albuquerque Academy (NM), I might receive one or two annual queries from parents about our policies and procedures. I believe they saw our external gates and campus oasis, our visible security staff, and the caring and attentive relationships between faculty and students, and felt a sense of security and safety. Those factors haven’t changed, but as the years have gone by, the hard questions from parents about our crisis management and security procedures has increased tenfold.
It’s not surprising that parental fear and anxiety has heightened given the dominant media narratives of recent years about the rising threat of school shootings. Parents are paying more attention to policies and procedures. What is surprising, however, is that school shootings have been on a downward trend over the past 20 years; schools are far safer now than they were in the past. “The statistical likelihood of any given public school student being killed by a gun, in school, on any given day since 1999 was roughly 1 in 614,000,000,” according to an editorial in The Washington Post.
Yet, as educators today, we face the challenge of balancing our awareness of these statistics with parental perceptions. The media’s portrayal of school shootings can leave parents in a state of constant anxiety about the “perceived risk.” This can create a real challenge for a school to manage. Here are a few things we’ve learned to help balance these conflicting realities.
Help parents understand the difference between real and perceived risk. I ran outdoor education programs for years and have given more than 50 related parent presentations. I have been asked countless questions about the threat of bears, lightning, rock-climbing accidents, and hypothermia (all representing very low real risks in a well-managed program with highly trained and competent staff, but very high perceived risks, especially for parents who are not experienced outdoors people). Not once have I been asked about our driver training procedures, our tire-rotation schedule, how we balance loads in our vehicles, or our process to minimize driver fatigue and distraction. Two out of three drivers will be involved in an accident that results in injury in their lives and yet, because we are so comfortable with driving, we quickly dismiss the real risk that we face every day when we load our children into cars. In my writing and speaking about crisis management (and outdoor education), I intentionally build in time to talk to parents about real versus perceived risk. Awareness can help shift impressions.
Understand, empathize, and respond to the emotional factors from parental reactions. So why is it that we continue to think our life is in danger every time we board an airplane (statistically a very low real risk) and have complete confidence when driving (a high real risk)? It all boils down to the emotional impact of information. From the Post editorial: “That’s the thing about risk. We assess it less on the likelihood of the outcome and more on the emotional nature of the experience involved in getting to that outcome. The probability of dying doesn’t matter as much as the way you die. That’s why the infinitesimally low risk of being eaten by a shark scares millions of people out of the ocean, and why vanishingly rare plane crashes scare travelers into their cars and trucks (a statistically riskier way to get around). School shootings also trigger powerful emotions that swamp the odds.”
Even when sharing reassuring crisis management statistics with parents, they still want assurance that their child will not be the one in 614 million who could be lost in such a horrific scenario. We must never become complacent about statistics; we must learn all we can from them in order to reassure parents that we understand their fears. We must also balance the other competing and often more pressing threats to our schools.
Use crisis management statistics to better prepare. I feel a deep obligation to pay close attention to school shooting incidents and statistics and use what I learn to improve our efforts. Here are a couple examples that have had significant influence over our shifting policies and procedures.
The majority of school active shooters (more than 95 percent) are internal to the community (representing a current/former student, parent, faculty/staff, etc.). This grants the shooter an intimate knowledge of the community and campus and often full access prior to any warning bells. It is easier to imagine that a potential threat will come from a rogue stranger who wanders onto campus versus a valued community member. This is not the statistical reality. Our response then should be less about fortressing our campus (which might reduce petty crime but won’t protect us from an internal threat) and more focused on doubling down efforts to foster a school culture that is supportive, ensures students’ (and adults’) social and emotional needs are met, swiftly responds to incidents of bullying or emotional distress, and connects students to adults who know and care about them and adults to thoughtful supervisors and HR personnel. We are actively considering how our school structures, routines, and decisions impact student stress and wellness.
Another example: In a Pew Research Center national study conducted in the spring of 2018, 57 percent of American teenagers said they were worried that a shooting could occur at their school. We need to create safe spaces for our students to discuss their worries and design trainings (we do two a year) that help them understand the real versus perceived risks, acknowledge the prevalence of student anxiety around this issue, and prepare them in case of a crisis at school. Most important, we need to create a culture that supports students safely sharing concerns about their peers to ensure we identify early warning signs and provide needed support and intervention.
Our own internal statistics show us that petty theft and vandalism on campus often occurs at the hands of opportunistic strangers. Our security staff is intentional about the timing of gate closures to reduce external traffic on campus, and this winter, we will be instituting a centralized check-in process for everyone who comes onto our campus (a challenge on a 300-acre campus with three entrances and more than 20 buildings).
Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. When parents’ smartphones and smartwatches are constantly delivering the latest disaster headlines, it is up to us to provide perspective on the media frenzy. Our communications with parents have increased from an annual crisis-management letter to biannual parent forums/trainings for volunteers, texting tests of our parent communication systems paired with every lockdown drill, and frequent communication updates regarding our policies and procedures. I also work hard to include sound statistics in my communications and a balanced approach to real versus perceived risks.
As we face the media intensity, parents’ (and students’) heightened anxiety, and our own competing resource demands, it is essential that we make smart decisions supporting our approach to balancing crisis-management perceptions and realities. There is no one-size-fits-all silver bullet to this challenge, but we have a responsibility to thoughtfully chart a course that works best for our schools and reassures ourselves and our families that we are as prepared as possible to avoid becoming a statistic.