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What to do when district mistakes go viral

Former Houston ISD press secretary offers tips for how district leaders can deal with unwanted attention
When a story goes viral, district leaders should Speak to the community as soon as possible.
When a story goes viral, district leaders should Speak to the community as soon as possible.

At one point or another, school districts find themselves in the glare of a harsh media spotlight. Sometimes a well-intentioned decision backfires. In other cases, an employee’s inappropriate or illegal behavior sparks outrage. Within days, or even hours, the news goes viral and the whole world seems to know.

What’s a school leader to do in such a situation? For advice, DA turned to Terry Abbott, a former press secretary for Houston ISD and former chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education. Abbott now runs Drive West Communications, a public relations agency that often does crisis communications consulting with school districts.

Here, he examines some recent stories that have gone viral and offers tips for how district leaders can deal with unwanted attention.

Speak to the community as soon as possible.

A high school student in South Fayette Township in Pennsylvania was charged with disorderly conduct in March for making an audio recording of students allegedly bullying him. However, the district did not release a statement until mid-April, and wrote that it could not discuss the case due to privacy concerns.

The story sparked national outrage, and the charges against the student have since been dropped.

“These situations can quickly build momentum and hurt a district,” Abbott says. “It’s very important for a district to immediately get out there and talk to the public about what’s happened and what they’re doing about it.”

School attorneys sometimes advise administrators not to discuss an issue so as not to prejudice any future court proceedings. This is especially true in cases involving physical or sexual abuse of a student, Abbott says.

But it’s important for district leadership to condemn the alleged illegal activity and let the public know it won’t be tolerated, he adds. Leaders should also state that if the allegations are true, the district will work with the authorities to take action.

“Schools have the lives of our children in their hands every day—if something is happening at a school, parents want to hear about it from the school leadership,” Abbott says. “Hearing ‘no comment’ only scares people.”

Provide a statement to the media.

At Creel Elementary, part of Brevard Public Schools in Florida, a grandparent contacted local media in April after learning that the principal had been serving students Mountain Dew and trail mix before state testing, according to published reports.

The school quickly released a statement to news outlets explaining the principal had read in an education journal about the benefits of this practice in getting students excited for the test. The district also said only water would be served in the future. No other parent complaints were reported.

During an incident, school leaders should arrange times to make statements to the media, Abbott says, and written copies should be provided so every outlet receives the same message.

“Especially in a crisis situation, you don’t want some media to get information and others not to,” he adds. “That can breed contempt in the media and confusion in the public.”

Show concern.

In Ysleta ISD in Texas, a fourth-grade teacher assigned students a worksheet with short story passages inferring marital infidelity and death, according to published reports.

Parents deemed that content inappropriate. The district released a statement within a week apologizing to students and parents, and said that “campus administration has addressed the issue with the teacher, and has taken decisive measures to assure that future assignments are aligned to the curriculum and are of the highest instructional caliber.” The story was still picked up by several local and national news outlets.

“In a case like this where an employee has done something wrong, the school should also say, ‘We understand the concerns of parents in this matter, and we’re concerned too,’” Abbott says. “Parents and kids are emotional people, and you have to meet that emotion with emotion and let the public know you genuinely care about their kids.”

Getting out of the office and speaking to the public in person can also help in these cases, he says.

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