School flack out of place scolding worried parents?

COMMENTARY — One of the first rules of public relations – right behind being truthful and transparent – should be to do no harm.

When a school district and police are investigating two or three reports of threats to school safety per day, and when nerves are so raw that 300 parents showed up for a meeting in the Ocean Breeze Elementary School cafeteria to discuss a disturbing incident, it’s probably a good time not to go rogue on social media if you’re the chief spokesman for Brevard Public Schools.

But last Wednesday, Matt Reed, the school district’s Assistant Superintendent of Government and Community Relations and a long-time Satellite Beach resident, posted a rant on what he called his “private page” on Facebook, “Matt Reed – Brevard news.”

Don’t go looking for the page because it was pulled down after angry parents, the Melbourne Beachsider and the Brevard Times lit up the school board’s electronic switchboard.

The post, labeled with a Satellite Beach location, read:

WHEN IS IT REALLY A SCHOOL ‘THREAT?’ People of Brevard, we need to regain sanity and stop losing our %#@& on Facebook every time a bad-but-otherwise-routine thing happens on a school campus. As part of the team of police investigators and school communicators who have worked double shifts since Feb. 14, I recommend trusting cops and principals to do their jobs and stop treating the following things like “the next Parkland.”

– Third-graders who say they want to “blow up” their school or who scream “I’ll kill you” during a playground fight.

– Graffiti in a middle-school bathroom stall that says “Bombing tomorrow – don’t go to school.”

– The weekly discovery of a pistol in a high school student’s car or backpack. (You’re right – bringing a gun to school is not OK, which is why America made that illegal in 1990 with the Gun-Free Schools law).

– Unstable students who act out and have to be taken for mental-health evaluations by resource officers.

I promise, BPS WILL tell you by text, email and robo-call when a school-shooting threat has been made, police are investigating, safety precautions have been taken, and/or you need to do something to protect your child.

People followed the public page “Matt Reed – Brevard news” because of Reed’s position with BPS and because he gained some notoriety as a former editorial page editor at Florida Today. Understandably, a number of parents lost their you-know-what over this post about what they’re not supposed to be worrying about.

The School District has been working to rebuild trust with parents and students after a Jan. 10, 2017 near-shooting that was averted was not disclosed to parents until March 7, a full 13 months later, and then by a robo-call. Also, Ocean Breeze Elementary parents two weeks ago found out about a student with a “kill list” from a very informative and transparent press release from Indian Harbour Beach Police Chief David Butler – not from the vague, scripted robo-call some parents received from Principal Laurie Hering.

On top of that, last week in the headlines were one Baker Act and six suspensions at Stone Middle School for students forming a school shooter club and compiling a kill list; a student found with a gun in his vehicle at Eau Gallie High School; and two suspicious items found and removed from Titusville High School by the bomb squad. The duct-taped cylinders resembled crude pipe bombs, but turned out to be discarded pieces from a robotics class missile project.

Reed works for Superintendent Desmond Blackburn, who answers directly to the five members of the Brevard County School Board. When asked Saturday what he intends to do about Reed’s post, or whether or not he intends to bring it up for discussion at the next School Board meeting, Blackburn said, “I haven’t made that decision yet.” But he adeptly distanced himself and the School District from Reed’s statements, stating that Reed was not speaking for the District.

Blackburn underscored the importance of the “see something, say something” effort going on in the schools to encourage reporting. “We take all matters of student and school safety and security extremely seriously,” Blackburn said, speaking as both a parent and an administrator, adding that “children are the most important concern in our lives.”

Though School Board Chairman John Craig doesn’t have a direct say in the Matt Reed matter, he did issue a thoughtful statement to the Melbourne Beachsider when asked to comment.

“The Brevard County School Board is committed to ensuring a safe and secure learning environment for every student that is entrusted to our care. We will investigate every option and discuss all opportunities for continued and comprehensive security at our facilities.

Our staff remain the stewards of any policy or procedure that the Board or Superintendent enact. The Board is grateful for the passion and love Brevard Public School staff members bring to work every day.  The events of the past few weeks stressed our team emotionally and physically. We are not only BPS employees but parents as well. Balancing the near constant input from news outlets and social media drains each member personally. I have not spoken with Mr. Reed concerning the Facebook posts you refer to in your email. He is a direct report to the Superintendent who in turn reports to the Board. I can say that the entire BPS team is doing their very best to respond to every communication regarding school safety and will continue to work with parents and the concerned community to identify threats. Each incident is unique and requires its own specific communication based on legal and statutory review. 

As Chairman of the Brevard County School Board, I offer our heartfelt thanks for all you do to inform our community and champion public education. We are servant leaders who are appreciative of the support and input from our citizens. And while our titles are that of elected officials, we are parents first. We will exhaust all avenues and explore every option to keep our children safe.

Thank you for the opportunity to respond.

All this controversy casts a shadow on Blackburn’s appointment last Tuesday by Gov. Rick Scott to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission. Blackburn said on Saturday that the commission, which is expected to meet by June 1, is a multi-agency team tasked with examining everything that went wrong leading up to and during the Feb. 14 Parkland tragedy so school officials, police and lawmakers can learn from the deadly shooting.

It seems that sort of post-mortem might be a good idea for Brevard Public Schools, to see who dropped the ball on recent events, and how to do a better job of communicating going forward.

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