Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday July 25th 2017

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Outtakes—Blown Opportunity

By Rick Outzen

Parents dread hearing a classmate had a gun at their child’s school. Where was the student apprehended? What kind of gun was it? Was their child ever in any danger?

School officials understand this. The good ones quickly communicate with the parents to reassure them.

In Kentucky, the principals have a template to follow. The email opens with the purpose of the communication, such as a student was arrested for having a gun on campus. The principal describes the situation and what was done, such as law enforcement was notified and handled the situation appropriately. The principal asks parents to discuss the incident with their children and explain the law regarding weapons on campus. He also leaves a phone number or email address for parents to get more information.

In Escambia County, principals don’t follow such procedures. When a Booker T. Washington High School student with a loaded semi-automatic handgun in his backpack was arrested on Feb. 7, the parents received an automated phone message from the principal.

He said, “This is Dr. Roberts calling from Booker T. Washington High School to inform all parents and students that today we had an incident at campus in which a student was found to be in possession of an illegal item.”

Many parents didn’t know a gun was the “illegal item” until I reported it on my blog.

Under the Virginia Model School Crisis Plan, principals are instructed to hold a brief faculty meeting to give accurate, updated information about the situation itself and to review with staff procedures for the day. The plan recommends one in the morning and another after school to address misinformation or rumors before staff members go home or into the community.

School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas and Dr. Roberts didn’t do that either. Teachers didn’t know the facts the day after the arrest.

The Virginia Department of Education understands people are going to talk about an emergency and, when accurate information is not available, rumors begin. Because of the lack of information coming from the Escambia County School District, rumors were rampant.

Parents wanted to know if their child was in any class with an armed student. They wanted to know what had law enforcement done to make sure that was the only gun on campus. They wanted to know specifically what was done to protect their children.

The most effective strategy for combating rumors is to provide facts as soon as possible. Thomas and Dr. Roberts did not do that. Trust was broken, and parents lost the opportunity for a valuable teaching moment with their children.