The Day After: What LPS Should Learn

May 12, 2011 at 1:00pm By: Mr. Wilson Posted in The Lincolnite Blog

Yesterday morning the phone rang at 6:01a.m. That’s never good. I picked up to hear the voice of Huntington Elementary Principal Rick Devney. The message was:

“Good Morning Huntington Families and Staff,

“This is Mr. Devney calling to inform you that we have been advised by the Lincoln Police Department to close school today for all students and staff. The police are in the Huntington neighborhood dealing with an unsafe person at 46th and Knox street. This situation is currently unsafe for us to gather for school. Our before and after school CLC will be closed as well. We will plan to resume school tomorrow.

Thank you for your support.”

The news was certainly unexpected, but I quickly guessed it had something to do with shots fired near the Capitol the day before. It turns out I was wrong. In fact, there was an unrelated standoff at 48th and Knox. It must be that time of year.

Being interested in happenings around Lincoln, I quickly scrambled to find out more information. At that time of the morning only 10/11 and KLIN seemed interested in the story. Confusingly, both media outlets were reporting that contrary to the message conveyed to us by phone, the start of school was merely delayed. Odd. Perhaps they had made a mistake. I checked LPS’s website where I discovered that LPS, too, was talking about a delay rather than an all-out cancellation. In addition, they used the word “delayed” in a tweet at 6:17am. I asked LPS for a clarification at 6:29am. They replied at 7:30am confirming the “delay” rather than cancellation. Finally LPS made the cancellation official just before 10:00am.

Let’s start with what LPS did right. They sent out a communication to families and media early, and they made it available via as many sources at that sort of message can reasonably be expected to be distributed. That was good.

Unfortunately, they sent out two conflicting messages. That was bad. LPS’s emergency communications plan failed somewhere. The school and the district should not be giving out different information. The message should not be different depending on the media used to distribute it.

Furthermore, LPS failed to take responsibility for the confusion. The district eventually declared the “delay” message to be correct, but they didn’t take the additional step of formally voiding the “cancelled” message. They allowed the two messages to coexist. In this case no harm was done, but it’s not difficult to imagine circumstances in which contrasting messages could be harmful or even dangerous.

In response, first LPS needs to figure out why an incorrect message was delivered by telephone. Why was Mr. Devney’s script wrong? The cause might be something as simple as the fog of sleep clouding the responsible parties’ judgement. In any case, safeguards should be put in place. Second, LPS should review how it deals with this sort of hiccup when it does happen. They should not permit two different messages to coexist. Firmly assert “THIS is the official message; any earlier contradicting message is wrong”. Perhaps even put a timestamp on the message (“As of 7:33am…”). I’m torn on whether LPS should have sent out a follow-up phone message to families to say “Hey, we goofed. School is just delayed, not cancelled.” On the one hand that would have made the messages consistent. On the other hand, if the follow-up call didn’t go out very soon after the first it may have been even more confusing. I know I would have appreciated the follow-up, but I’m not sure that’s true for everyone.

I didn’t write all this to pile on LPS. I’m not angry with them, although I was pretty annoyed at the confusion yesterday morning. The fact is, this situation wasn’t a very big deal. Sure it meant families had to figure out what to do with their kids for the day, but in the big scheme of things that’s not so bad. But imagine more complex or more dangerous scenarios. If LPS isn’t getting their emergency communication plans correct in a simple situation like this, how can we have confidence they’ll do things correctly when all hell breaks loose?

LPS slipped up. No big deal ... as long as they learn from it.

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