Crisis Communication in Schools Depends on Technology, Strategy

Education experts are renewing their focus on improving the way they communicate risks and threats not only to their colleagues and students, but also to the community at large. They hope to broaden the delivery of this message by adopting the latest technological developments and making it simpler to spread relevant news in service of information or protection.

Philip Hagan, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, a lawyer and a risk expert with over 20 years experience, details on Smart Blogs: Education the lessons he himself learned in his 25 years in academia when it comes to delivering messages quickly and effectively to varied audiences. He said that the best approaches are the ones that design different delivery methods depending on the target group and that work off an open platform that allows the spread of multiple streams of information at the same time.

Recent events have sharpened the national focus on school safety at all levels, but colleges and universities have been serious about risk communications since the passage of the Cleary Act in 1990. The Act was written to document and address campus risk events and to hold schools accountable for how they respond (perhaps most memorably, Virginia Tech was fined by the Department of Education for its response to the April 16, 2007 shootings).

After the passage of the Cleary Act, schools moved to evolve the notion that they're in loco parentis while students are on the premises from a philosophical idea to a practical one. Creating a structured risk-assessment plan that included a strong community, parental and student notification component was a part of those efforts.

Hagan has worked with technology throughout his career and came to understand how to use it best in order to deliver information quickly and accurately to the widest possible audience — but this presents a particularly daunting challenge when it came to college campuses, where staff and students are frequently disbursed over a radius of miles.

My last official act as Director of Safety and Environmental Management for Georgetown University on Jan. 31, 2011 was manning the Emergency Operations Center in Doha, Qatar as we brought our students out of Cairo, Egypt during the onset of the Arab Spring uprising. We dealt with issues inherent in an evacuation effort that was complicated by both time and geography. My single greatest frustration was the inability to reach people where they were, with specific information and manage messages across platforms.

As schools re-think their communications models as the debate over school safety heats up, schools are increasingly looking for guidance from professionals like Hagan who have dealt with — and, as technology evolves and behavioral patterns change — constantly modified crisis communications across broad communities.

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