We’re in a lockdown! Somebody said there’s a kid shooting up the library! Mom, I’m scared!
Holding back the fear started by that text, she jabs at the shortcut that takes her straight to the district’s School Safety Facebook page, and immediately texts back “Bank robbery six blocks from the school. Lockdown is a precaution. No worries!”
With the start of the 2015-2016 school year, Florida’s Pasco County Schools and Pasco County Sheriff’s Office launched Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts dedicated solely to providing up-to-date information to the community about issues related to school safety. A community education campaign including posters, flyers, in-person promotions by school resource officers at Back-to-School Open Houses and a 20,000-address email blast has encouraged parents to use these sites as their “go to” resource for accurate information about situations including lockdowns, school bus accidents and major maintenance concerns.
“These days with all the student cell phones, as soon as there’s even a drill, they start texting their parents, and some of the stories can get pretty out of hand. And of course, the parents’ instinct is to come to the school and get their children,” says Linda Cobbe, Pasco County Schools Director of Communications & Government Relations. “We want to use the sites and the promotional campaign to educate parents on what the terms lockdown and controlled campus/modified lockdown mean, explain why they shouldn’t come to the school, and reassure them that school staff and our SROs train and do drills together and they can trust us to keep their children’s safety our top priority.”
In the first week of school, Pasco County used the sites to put out information about minor bus accidents, the possibility of closing schools because of Hurricane Ericka and a propane leak at one facility. The school district reposts the information through its own social media channels as well, with the sheriff’s office taking the responsibility for maintaining the school safety sites.
“All agencies train for critical incidents, but many agencies fail to train for communications. More and more, it’s an expectation from the public that they are going to get information as soon as possible. They rely on social media and it’s our responsibility to communicate effectively during a crisis or a potential crisis,” says Capt. James Mallo of the Sheriff’s Office Juvenile Investigation Division, which includes the SRO program. “The rumors are what hurts us. We need to stop the rumors and tell them what’s really going on. We want to reach out to parents and students to set the story straight on even the most minor things.”
Mallo notes that for the most part, school bus accidents fall under that heading of “minor things,” but all it takes is one text from a child saying “We had an accident” to start a rumor that rapidly spreads and changes. Getting parents to turn to the School Safety Social Media sites when those rumors start to fly results from building a relationship with parents, students and staff to create a climate of communication and trust throughout the 87-school district.
Cobbe says Pasco County Schools enroll approximately 70,000 students in those 87 schools, and it’s hard to communicate effectively with the families of that many people. Putting all information related to school safety in one place should help; the response received from staff, students and parents following the August 24 launch has been positive.
“The parents do seem to appreciate it,” Cobbe says. “The project shows how really important it is for law enforcement and school districts to communicate with each other, and to work together to provide parents with the most accurate information. I think it could be the first site of this kind in the nation, and I hope it’s something that other schools decide to replicate.”