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Responding to a Crisis: Planning for Inevitable Challenging Events Can Solidify Crisis Response and Reduce Liability Exposure

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A crisis can hit at any time, unexpectedly shifting the priorities of key school district administrative staff.

Imagine:

  • A former employee uploads a YouTube video claiming that a district has a multitude of safety violations. The video is picked up by the local media as the "Viral Video of the Day," which prompts protests at the central office.

  • A manager responds to an e-mail "phishing" scam, which results in a ransom demand to recover employee social security numbers and other personal information as well as school district student data.

These and similar situations happen across the country every day. When they happen elsewhere, they can seem far away and unlikely. But any administrator engaged in education for any significant time will have to participate in navigating the district through a crisis. Having a sound crisis-management plan—and an administrative team prepared to implement that plan—can help reduce legal risks.

Plan Before a Crisis, Plan Again When It Hits, and Be Flexible

Knee-jerk reactions to a crisis often prompt a secondary crisis—for example, an unvetted statement to the media that can significantly hurt a school district's credibility if the statement is later disproved. Planning before a crisis arises and planning a path to manage it at the outset of a crisis are key to effective crisis management. Strong planning—and sticking to the plan—can also help to reduce the size and impact of the inevitable bumps along the road.

Before a crisis hits, administrative team members can develop a plan for unexpected events and crises. The plan should address the following:

  • Who needs to be involved in decisions about how to respond to the crisis? Identifying the triage team before an issue arises will help ensure that the team gets up and running more quickly to get ahead of the crisis. Otherwise, the crucial first part of a crisis can be spent determining who should be involved, rather than mobilizing and responding quickly. Although different circumstances may result in variations of the critical team members, preplanning can still reduce the initial scurry of decisions about who is involved.

  • What person or persons are authorized to speak on behalf of the school district, and how are they prepared to speak? Ensuring clarity of the role of communications administrators or consultants can help avoid misstatements to the public that could come back to harm the school district. And remember that it is not just what is said in response to the crisis, but how it is said, that is important. The authorized communicator should pay careful attention to tone and language used concerning a crisis response.

  • What third-party vendors—from PR specialists, to investigators, to legal support—might be relied on in a crisis? Knowing which trusted advisers to call when a crisis hits will save critical time.

  • If a crisis involves compromises in technology, what backup systems exist, and is there a plan to minimize operational disruption? Data breaches are becoming more and more common, and having a robust contingency plan in place that addresses both the breach and the school district's ongoing operations is a critical piece of any crisis-management plan.

When a crisis does hit:

  • Assemble the triage team together as soon as possible.

  • Address outside support and confirm confidentiality obligations—don't create e-mails or text messages that could be subject to later misinterpretation.

  • Set up a meeting schedule, identify goals and points of connection, and assign tasks to be accomplished along the way.

  • To the extent possible, wait to make critical decisions until sufficient facts are confirmed. Too often a lack of information or assumptions about a situation lead to haphazard actions that can create a host of problems, including legal exposure.

  • Be prepared to be flexible. Having a plan with goals and tasks provides a helpful baseline from which to work, but crises are often fluid situations that require some degree of flexibility.

Be Aware of Common Legal Issues

A variety of legal issues can arise in a crisis. Pressure to make broad statements about the circumstances can create risks of defamation claims. Take the "viral video" example above. Pressure to respond about safety issues may create pressure to disparage the former employee. But public statements about a former employee, especially if false, but even if simply negative or disparaging, may create legal risk. Similarly, most crisis situations involve social media. School district administrators must not succumb to pressure to address a crisis by, for example, violating First Amendment or other speech rights of employees related to social media use. Also related to employment, statements that reflect a snap judgment without all the facts can raise due process or claims of violations of the collective bargaining agreement. In short, planning reduces the likelihood of making major mistakes in these areas and also allows thoughtful decision-making balancing the risks and benefits of various courses of action instead of simply being reactive.

Be Strategic

The bottom line is that when facing a crisis, a school district must consider individual rights, the public's right to information, the school district's internal morale, and a host of other values. This balance is often difficult to achieve because some actions further certain goals while others create legal risk. School district administrators must work collaboratively with their leadership teams, listen and participate, and help the school district find the right balance for navigating the waters of a significant crisis.