A decade after two students opened fire at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., killing 13 and injuring dozens more before turning the guns on themselves, the lessons in crisis communications and management gleaned from this tragic event still resonate for school leaders nationwide.
For those closest to the tragedy, the pain still resonates, too. "I see the faces of each student and Dave Sanders who were murdered, and the lives of those who were injured, and those who survived, but carried the scars from that day for a long time," says Rick Kaufman, APR (Accreditation in Public Relations), who had been leading Jefferson County Public Schools’ communications team for less than a year when the tragedy occurred.
Kaufman now serves as executive director of community relations and coordinator of emergency management for Bloomington Public Schools in Minnesota. "From the pain, some would say we’ve triumphed, but that rings very hollow to the parents and siblings and extended families of those who were lost," says Kaufman.
The worst crime committed at a K-12 school in American history (33 people died in the Va. Tech massacre eight years later), Columbine changed crisis planning, intervention, and response.
"I believe educators no longer operate under the assumption that major crisis events are anomalies that ‘would never happen in our district,’" says Karen Kleinz, APR, associate executive director of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA).
Kleinz, who provided on-site assistance in the tragedy’s wake, says Columbine’s ripple effects of copycat threats, frightened families, and calls for increased campus security and the identification of students at risk of severe behavioral problems were felt nationwide.
"Since the tragedy at Columbine, there have been so many unusual and unexpected crises that have touched our schools–other shootings, 9-11, and extreme weather disasters, to name a few–that our heads are forever out of the sand," says Klein. "Proactive crisis planning is now the norm rather than the exception."
A watershed event, Columbine was, in many ways, one of the first major crises of the internet age. News coverage was worldwide, 24-7. In less than a day, more than 500 news outlets descended on Littleton, Colo., a Denver suburb.
Web sites carried events live. Soon, school officials were answering calls from new media outlets many had never heard of, like Salon magazine, which ultimately provided some of the most thoughtful–and accurate–coverage of the crisis.
The magnitude of the mass murder, combined with the revved-up volume and speed of information flow, rendered traditional approval processes and timelines obsolete. With rumors flying, the communications team at the scene had to move just as fast–and they needed reinforcements.
"While many of the tried-and-true strategies we had used for years had some immediate effectiveness, as that event unfolded, it quickly became apparent that those were not going to be enough after the first 24 hours," says Kleinz.
Crisis experts now recognize that high-level events like Columbine have distinguishable phases that require specific expertise and different communication strategies, according to Kleinz.
Some of the techniques the Columbine communications team pioneered, like creating a web site devoted to news and information about the crisis and using eMail messages and voice broadcasting to keep staff members and parents informed, are still considered best practices today.
"We have improved our ability to communicate more efficiently, effectively, and broadly, thanks to what we learned as a result of the Columbine tragedy, Hurricane Katrina, and the other tragic events on our schools and university campuses," says Kaufman. "Parent notification systems, the use of social media outlets, and a host of other efforts have allowed us to communicate almost immediately."
The team also brought in dozens of communication volunteers across Colorado who manned phone lines, handled media requests, crafted message points, and mapped out key events, from press briefings to the district’s ecumenical memorial service. NSPRA flew in a handful of national experts as well.
A public library was converted to a communications command center and was quickly stocked with networked computers, printers, fax machines, telephones, cell phones, bullhorns, and walkie talkies, as well as office supplies, bottled water, basic sundries, and food.
The suffering of the victims and their families, as well as the relentless pressure and lack of sleep, need to be factored into planning for large-scale events, according to Kleinz; otherwise, even the strongest and most capable leaders will start collapsing from exhaustion and emotional fatigue.
"Outside support is critical to sustaining the effectiveness of your response in the long term," says Kleinz. "The physical toll alone on those in charge of managing the crisis is enormous and must be factored into advance planning and preparation. The importance of community and collegial resources and support cannot be underestimated."
The importance of managing the psychological aspects of a crisis, particularly for those managing the response, is a critical lesson many school districts still overlook.
While making counseling available for students and staff members is a routine part of most crisis plans, making sure that principals and district leaders get the emotional support they need is not.
Fostering a sense of normalcy among students, teachers, parents, and staff members by reopening school is an important step in the healing process. The comfort of such routines doesn’t mean things are really normal for anyone involved, however.
The Columbine team brought in trained crisis volunteers from the National Organization of Victims Assistance and the National Association for School Psychologists, who helped guide the response effort and brought in a deeper level of expertise in dealing with extreme trauma.
Working in concert with a variety of experts helped the district focus on what mattered most: the people they served.
"As I reflect back, I hope in some small way [that] my actions and those of my team were able to make it easier for the Columbine families and students and staff to heal," says Kaufman. "That, above all else, is what drove us to do what we did and make decisions that we did, even when those conflicted with media and political pundits."
Columbine and other school crises have also placed greater emphasis on prevention and intervention.
A three-year, $9 million study by the Colorado Trust commissioned after the Columbine massacre showed that teenagers need more and better relationships with caring, competent adults.
When teens are connected in healthy ways to adults, bullying and other anti-social behaviors are dramatically reduced.
Having a good relationship isn’t enough. Adults have to be willing to take action and intervene when students or young people misbehave or when adults see other warning signs.
Students must be willing to speak up, as well, when they see their peers being treated inappropriately or in a harmful manner.
According to the Colorado Trust, "Bullying decreased when adults and students were willing to intervene, treat each other fairly, and show they care."
The study also showed that students in schools with less bullying achieved at higher levels on state tests and that anti-bullying initiatives could reduce incidents of inappropriate behavior, including cyber or online harassment.
"Every student needs an adult mentor, regardless of race, creed, color, ethnicity, sexual preference, et cetera," says Kaufman. "We must take an interest in the lives of every student who walks through our doors. Failure to do so leaves to chance a student who might become disenfranchised [and] turn to inappropriate behaviors and actions that could bring harm to themselves and/or others."
Students who feel connected to a school also are more likely to report suspicious behavior to a trusted adult–a key factor in preventing violence from erupting on school campuses.
"We must always, always remain vigilant, because we still know that today, as it was 10 years ago, the No. 1 deterrent to a violent school act is when someone comes forth with information that allows staff and police to intervene," says Kaufman. "These are the success stories."
Nora Carr, APR, Fellow PRSA, is chief of staff for Guilford County Schools in Greensboro, N.C, and an award-winning columnist for eSchool News. She was one of several crisis communication experts who assisted Jefferson County Public Schools on-site during the aftermath of the Columbine High School tragedy.