School officials walked away from a February security scare at beachside schools with a renewed appreciation of the importance of communicating clearly with parents.
“We learned we really need to be super-specific with the information if we have it,” Brevard Public Schools spokesman Matt Reed said in a recent interview. “We weren’t clear enough, I think, with parents on the beachside.”
The beachside incident started on the evening of Feb. 12, during an exchange of several Snapchat messages between an unidentified person and students, mostly from Hoover and Delaura middle schools. At least one student interpreted one of the messages as a threat against his school and told his parents, who then alerted law enforcement. Other parents heard of the situation and also alerted school officials, as well as posting on social media.
Within a couple of hours of the first report, local law enforcement agencies had determined there was no actual threat, but had extra security at beachside schools the next morning anyway. In the meantime, principals and the school district sent several messages about the incident to parents, many of them using similar but different language and providing little detail to reassure parents.
Reed said it’s a challenge to juggle clear communications with parents’ demand for immediate information.
“The way we balance it out is we know most parents would rather know more and they’re really impatient, and understandably so when their child’s safety is at stake,” Reed said. “So we try to err on the side of over-communicating.”
In the beachside incident, which unfolded after school hours, principals at Satellite High School, Delaura and Hoover middle schools, and Ocean Breeze and Holland elementary schools sent out messages that reached a total of about 3,500 people who had signed up specifically for emails or text messages from those schools, according to BPS records.
Local news picked up on the story, and confusion and concern spread so quickly throughout the county that BPS sent out two messages district-wide on the morning of Feb. 13 to the nearly 90,000 subscribers on its mobile app, first clarifying that the perceived threat affected beachside schools only, and then that there were no active threats to any schools in Brevard County.
First responders from various police and fire jurisdictions staged an obvious visual presence on beachside school campuses, saying they were there “in an abundance of caution” only.
Emergency vehicles at school drop-offs alerted parents. Absentee rates that day skyrocketed at multiple schools.
Reed said the lack of specific information in the messages exacerbated the issue, and in hindsight the district should have sent out a “wrap-up message” stating exactly what was happening.
He said district officials often respond to two or three school security incidents per day, running the gamut from an actual threat by a student against a specific school to things as vague as the beachside incident.
“It’s exhausting,” Reed said.
Parent expectations of rapid communications have become so commonplace in this era of fears over school shootings that local principals send out messages about mundane things like fire alarms, or the Internet being down.
“It’s starting to push it a little bit when we have to send out notifications about a second-grader and a pocket knife was found was in his backpack,” Reed said. “The challenge is that it if something is happening at a school or somebody’s talking about something that a friend just reported and it’s suddenly going wild on social media, a lot of times parents will demand answers faster than police can get on campus and look around. They want answers faster than the police know what’s going on. The biggest challenge for us most of the time is just speed.”
Reed said communications with parents in general is largely left up to principals, although district officials do provide guidance if asked.
“Their job is to run their school and their school community,” Reed said. “We’ve given them guidelines. We’ve even kind of distilled it down to an illustrated principal playbook, starting with call the police.”
In a real-life critical incident, such as a school shooting, an emergency operations center would be set up and communications would be centralized.
BPS is also rolling out a new app for school staff called RAVE. The app includes a panic button that immediately alerts law enforcement and allows for quicker internal communications between those on the scene who may be in lockdown classrooms or other situations.
“I think that people are more afraid now than they were a year or two ago,” Reed said.
“We’ve asked them to be vigilant. I think there are parents who are super-protective of their kids, understandably so, and they get frightened fast and very many of them go instantly to social media where they are trying to trade information to find out what’s going on and it can reinforce the emotional reaction.
“A lot of this we are learning through trial and error and parents and families are helping us learn and it’s not always a comfortable process.”