By Tim Kalinowski
All three local school divisions have agreed to use the same language protocols to better inform the public during an emergency situation.
Panicked and confused parents flocked to some local schools in March when threatening text messages were sent to their students, prompting those schools to respond with what some sources at the time termed a “hold and secure” and others “a lockdown.”
Using the word “lockdown” increased the sense of panic in the situation, stated PRSD Superintendent Brian Andjelic, speaking on behalf of his own division, the Medicine Hat Catholic Board of Education and SD-76.
“It was bad news for our kids, it was bad news for our parents, it was bad news for our school divisions, it was bad news for media,” he said at a press conference last Thursday.
Andjelic acknowledged the term “lockdown” is commonly used in situations where kids are locked in schools while police are dealing with threatening situations, but insisted this term, and others, needed to be used more carefully to better communicate to parents, the media and the general public the nature of the incident.
A “Hold and Secure” will be in place when there is an emergency situation in close proximity to the school, outside the school on school grounds or unrelated to the school, while a “Lockdown” pertains to an immediate threat of violence to staff and students inside the school. During a hold and secure, the school operates normally inside, while outdoor activities are cancelled, and access to and from the school is monitored. During a lockdown nobody would be allowed to move around inside or outside the school until the threat of violence is ended.
“Shelter in place” is used where there are weather or other environmental emergencies in close proximity to the school, or on school grounds. An “Evacuation” is where the students are transported from the school to a place of greater safety in an emergency situation.
“We as systems own how we share the language with the people we work directly with, and the communities, staff and people we serve,” said SD-76 Superintendent Mark Davidson. “So if we share that language frequently and clearly, it is part of our messaging when an incident occurs… We can at least own the beginning of the message being accurate.”
“I think the more people that know the more likely the message is to get out there. We did see instances on social media (in March) where parents said: ‘No, they aren’t in lockdown. They are in hold and secure,’” added Catholic Board of Education Superintendent Joe Colistro.
During the hold and secure incident in March, some also criticized the school divisions for not getting information out more quickly to parents, which may have contributed to some of the misinformation being spread through social media at the time.
PRSD Communications Coordinator Angela Baron said the school divisions were taking steps to rectify that situation as well.
“That is something we have talked about,” she said. “Every school division is going to have a different process for getting in touch with you, or sending the information to you… In our division we have looked at protocols; and within that lockdown, (for example), what would that communication look like to parents and what that is going to look like to the media? We have actually looked at breaking it (the emergency protocol) down even further, and that is something you will get from our school division the months to come. I would also assume other jurisdictions will do much the same using their process.”
Andjelic added, while the PRSD and other local divisions will likely be working on ways of fostering more fluid communication with parents and the general public should a similar emergency situation arise in the future, school divisions will always have to put the safety of their students first.
“We can’t always notify parents (immediately), because we have to do an investigation first to find out what actually is the story. The story as it comes to us is often very vague, and often not substantiated. So the first thing we have to do is make sure we understand the situation correctly ourselves. That is the number one priority and that takes time… Unfortunately all it takes is a student, for example, overhearing a conversation between two adults in a building that wasn’t necessarily intended for them to hear. And through a phone or social media, it can get ahead of us. It can get ahead of us and our preparations to be ready to get out accurate information,” he said.
-With some files from the Medicine Hat News.