How Schools Communicate with the Community

During any unexpected event, from a changed meeting location to a natural disaster, parents want to know that schools will communicate with them quickly, effectively and truthfully. The days of phone chains, where a string of communication filtered from the administration down to each child’s household with individual phone calls, are gone. They have been replaced with smart phones and social media, which allow instantaneous communication between anyone at the school and anyone in the community.

School districts in Door County are still working on policies to respond to these changing communication methods, but most agree that strict communication policy is not good when it comes to emergencies.

“The specifics of a communication may be determined by the incident,” said Tina Van Meer, superintendent of the Gibraltar Area School District. “The superintendent or her designee works with local agencies, depending on the nature of the incident to develop communications and a timeline for the release of communications.”

An unexpected heavy snowfall is different than an intruder with a weapon and schools like the flexibility outside of a strict written bylaw to communicate as needed. But the immediacy of social media and kids with cell phones has put pressure on districts to communicate their official message faster.

“Social media gets a life of its own,” said Patti Vickman, superintendent of Southern Door School District. “People don’t always understand that there may be other facts to the situation.”

In the case of an emergency or unexpected event, schools in the county are not required by the state or their own bylaws and policies to communicate with parents.

Dan Tjernagel, superintendent at the Sturgeon Bay School District, said a formal outline is less important than general communication.

“I personally would worry less about any formal school board policy or administrative guidelines to board policy but focus more on our ongoing communication efforts when something arises,” said Tjernagel. Sturgeon Bay frequently uses Facebook to communicate timely messages, such as the water main leak in the high school last December.

“Trying to deal with a situation and craft an accurate, appropriate message to send out is hard enough. And then after some quick text messages that may or may not contain accurate information go out from students to parents and the calls start coming in to the office, you can imagine how challenging that can get,” said Tjernagel.

Southern Door School District has developed a community group of emergency responders, ranging from the sheriff’s department to the hospital and utility operators to respond to any range of issues. During any threatening event, from tornadoes to bomb threats and intruders, the bylaws and policies of all districts refer only to contacting law enforcement if the administrator deems it appropriate. Communication with parents is not explicitly required.

That is not to say schools cannot communicate with parents and the community. Districts post on Facebook or their website and send recorded phone calls and text messages to the listed number of each parent.

Sheri Krause, director of communications for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said that a strict policy might be too limiting.

“It’s an area where they would not want a hard written policy because you want our staff to be flexible in those situations,” said Krause. “We know there are some districts that have crisis communication policies. However, those policies focus on designating an official spokesperson for the district in the event of a crisis…. They do not prescribe the method or type of communications to the public nor do they prescribe a timeline for communications. Those decisions are best handled by administrators based on the situation at hand.”

Law Enforcement at School

The Door County Sherriff’s Department has a special deputy program that provides officers to different school districts. Sevastopol and Southern Door use the program, paid for by the sheriff’s department, and welcome the company of a retired sheriff’s deputy one day each week on a random schedule.

“Just to have a presence in the school,” said Chief Deputy Pat McCarty. “He works on them with some safety procedures.”

Sturgeon Bay Schools hired its own safety officer and McCarty said, after three years of the program, Gibraltar is now talking to the department about using the program as well. McCarty said it is part of an ongoing discussion that is not directly related to the suspicious man the school filed a restraining order against on March 10.

“We are having discussions about it but that would be something that the superintendent, as an extension of the school board, would have to come to an agreement with the sheriff but we’re certainly open to it,” said McCarty. “There’s been several months where Gibraltar is updating their emergency response handbook and we’ve been working with them.”

McCarty said there are a lot of moving parts in Gibraltar, such as the Gibraltar police department, that open up more options as to the administration of a uniformed officer at the school.

“Over the past year, the school district has been actively engaging with local law enforcement and other emergency response personnel to review and refine our current safety plan,” said Van Meer. “Our roundtable discussions with these professionals has not only enhanced our emergency response plan, but it has also fostered valuable relationships for the future.”

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