In Practice: When Should a School Issue an Official Statement?

Spring 2023

By Tracy M. Sweet

This article appeared as "Making the Call" in the Spring 2023 issue of Independent School.

We’ve all read statements in which any school’s name could be inserted: Main Street USA School is deeply saddened by the horrific events in Headline City, USA. We send our thoughts and prayers to those affected by this unthinkable tragedy. 

Independent school leaders have been increasingly compelled or called on to comment when a national or global crisis makes headlines. Campus communities, alumni, families, and the media often want to know what the school’s position is on a particular issue. Most recently, gun violence and mass fatalities, hate crimes, natural disasters, environmental issues, and politically fueled demonstrations or riots have prompted many school leaders to issue statements. But in these cases, are schools prepared to do something beyond offer thoughts, prayers, or outrage? Such proclamations may be received as performative, especially if there is a pattern of words without actions. Unless a statement is followed by specific action, it will ring hollow at best, and it will erode an institution’s credibility at worst. 

Members of our school community including alumni have sometimes criticized Phillips Academy (MA) for not responding quickly enough to denounce a particular event, believing the school should immediately speak out—occasionally even forwarding messages from other institutions that have done so as examples. 

As a residential secondary school educating and caring for 1,150 students, many of whom are thousands of miles from home, Andover has an obligation to ensure they are safe and have resources to process the most tragic world events. We will always act swiftly to support students, faculty, and staff who are struggling as these events unfold. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we will issue a public statement. 

In the past two years, Andover has released a campuswide email or public statement at least eight times in response to major events, including the January 6 insurrection, the outbreak of war in Ukraine, a mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket, and the deadly massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. As news of these tragedies was breaking, a group of senior administrators exchanged a seemingly endless chain of emails to determine whether a statement was appropriate, and if so, what it would say, and from whom would it come. The conversation usually centered around two questions: Why do we need a statement? And, by making a statement, are we advancing a broader conversation beyond campus? 

The more we grappled with a spate of headlines—from deadly violence in schools and places of worship to the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade—the more it became apparent that we needed a systematic approach to determine when to speak up.

Getting to Guidelines

The increasing frequency of tragic events and the sheer number of conversations we were having about any one event led us to realize that we would benefit from a structured decision-making approach. Every situation is nuanced—from acts of violence to racism to environmental justice and reproductive freedom—and no matter what a school says or does not say, someone will disagree with its statement or its silence. As a former journalist and having led crisis communications at Andover and in higher education institutions, I have seen reactions range from thoughtful disagreement to alumni threatening to withhold donations because they do not support the school’s stated position. 

In these times of heightened discord and polarization, it’s important that schools at least have an actionable approach that draws from its institutional values. Last summer, as the school’s chief communications officer, I drafted guidelines to help determine when it is appropriate for Andover to issue a statement. By starting with a foundational premise to rely on Andover’s mission and values and to frame our response around action and education, I believed we’d move quickly toward consensus on the guidelines. I presented the draft to my colleagues on the leadership team, a group that includes academic and residential life deans, general counsel, and the heads of diversity, equity and inclusion; advancement; and admission.

After meetings with the full senior team and further conversations with the head of school, we agreed on the draft guidelines. I then presented them to key campus advisory groups, which included the Academic Council (department heads and deans); Staff Council (professional and nonacademic positions); Faculty Advisory Committee (advisory to the head of school); and the faculty/staff IDEA Committee (inclusivity, diversity, equity, and action). Inviting their input was a crucial step as they offered a wider variety of perspectives and improvements. For example, I learned that faculty with discipline-specific expertise—in bioethics, religion, gender studies, or race relations—wanted to be included when breaking news might necessitate issuing a statement. In some cases, faculty said, they could add context or discern nuance, which could help inform the school’s position.  

Asking Pointed Questions

The resulting guidelines, which are captured as an addendum to our crisis communication plan, are grounded in mission-aligned questions. The guidelines also provide clarity around decision-making, stipulating that a subset of the senior team, after discussing the questions, will make a recommendation to the head of school that includes Andover’s likely position based on its values, potential action, and whether a statement should be issued and, if so, from whom.

When the school finds itself grappling with whether, when, and how to speak up, we start by asking: What do students, faculty, and staff need from Andover? 
  • A place to gather, grieve, share their opinion? 
  • Information on how or where to get support? 
  • A campus forum or other educational opportunities?
  • Guidance on how to address the topic with students, peers, or colleagues?
  • Resources such as articles, books, speakers, or videos?
Next, we ask questions to determine whether to issue a public statement:
  • Is the matter relevant to education?
  • Does it directly affect our campus community, families, and alumni?
  • Is Andover positioned to advance the conversation? Who benefits from understanding the school’s viewpoint?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, we continue the discussion, asking: Are we compelled by our school’s values to share the school’s position? We must consider that while Andover may be compelled by its values to support a particular position, that should not be the sole reason for sharing it publicly. We must also consider the potential broader effect of issuing a statement. Would some students, faculty, or staff feel ignored or silenced, their opinions unwelcome? Part of our academic philosophy is teaching students how to think, not what to think, and we should be prepared to make space for divergent opinions to be expressed.

When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, Andover chose not to make a statement because, in our view, a private high school is not well-positioned to credibly advance the conversation. Universities with medical schools were out front sharing research-based data and action. For example, the University of Michigan established a task force to preserve access to a range of women’s health care and, after the court’s decision, worked with public officials to amend the state’s constitution to keep abortion services legal. It also promoted a webpage with the latest information and resource material. Michigan’s statements communicated action and added clarity during a chaotic time. 

Another university issued an ambiguous statement about being a place that “values debate and dialogue” and urging their students and faculty to “find constructive ways to have their voices heard.” But they took no position, expressed no action, and ultimately said nothing of substance. Perhaps a better approach would have been to offer a venue for dialogue and debate and send the message only to the campus community (fully realizing that it could become public). 

Adding Substance by Taking Action

Whatever the headline, there are many ways a school can actively respond. Actions should drive an independent school statement and could include:
  • supporting students and adults by offering trauma or grief counseling
  • holding an educational forum
  • sponsoring a demonstration on campus or transporting students to a public demonstration
  • organizing an event, speaker, or forum that is open to the public
  • examining campus policies and systems with the potential for change
  • advocating through correspondence or meetings with local, state, or national officials seeking to change or influence local or national policy 
While our guidelines, which include these potential actions, have been in place for only a few months, we will review and update them annually. When I began this process, I planned to design a flow chart with a series of questions that would direct us to a concrete answer. Should we issue a statement, yes or no? I quickly learned, however, that determining when our institution should speak up and what it should say will rarely follow a straight line or result in unanimous agreement. This is all the more reason to prepare for these emotionally fraught moments by establishing a process that, when put into practice, will point to the right decisions for our school.
Tracy M. Sweet

Tracy M. Sweet is chief communications officer at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.