After my experience with arriving at my son's school to find police cars with lights flashing and the school under lockdown, blogging about it, reading and hearing responses to the story, and thinking about it on and off for a couple of days, I decided to write a letter to the school outlining my concerns and making a few suggestions. It is unusual for me to actually take the step of writing a letter, though I often threaten to, and I was pleased with what I came up with and sent.
Here's what I wrote (redacted for specific references to my son or his school):
My son [name] is in the first grade at [your school]. I have been very happy with the positive attention and academic support and challenge, as well as the quality of teachers, he has so far encountered. It is clear that you care deeply about the students and staff at [the school] and strive to create a nurturing environment and encourage excellence in every classroom. I am also pleased at the effort you and my son’s teachers make to stay in contact with parents and keep us informed. The automatic phone calls I receive in the evenings once or twice a week are helpful to remind me of what’s coming up and what’s going on.
I was surprised, then, to show up at school to pick up [my son] on Wednesday afternoon and find police cars surrounding the school. I had no idea what was going on. I had not received any kind of communication about a lockdown or emergency situation, and I did not know if I needed to follow any special instructions or procedures or if I needed to be worried about my son. It was clear that some of the parents knew what was going on and others did not. I appreciated that you personally came out to explain the dismissal procedure, but I did not like being in the dark as to the reason behind the precautions.
I picked up [my son] at the back gate as instructed and was entertained by his account of the “practice” lockdown. I was pleased that he obviously knew what to do when a lockdown was called, that he and his classmates had followed directions, and that he was not traumatized or frightened. But I was not pleased that I still didn’t know what had triggered the lockdown and if I needed to be concerned.
Another parent informed me as we walked home about the potentially threatening phone call the school had received. I wondered how she knew about it and I didn’t. It was also a vague sort of report, the kind that can spawn rumors that blow the actual event way out of proportion.
When I got home, I had a message on my voicemail from the automated calling system with your explanation of the lockdown. The message was time-stamped 1:15pm, when I was already on my way home from picking up my son. I was relieved that no emergency situation had occurred and to finally hear more of the story.
I am writing, therefore, to comment that taking over an hour to get the message out to all families is too long. I realize there are limits to how quickly the robo-caller can get to all the numbers on the list. Normally, this isn’t a problem, but in an emergency situation like a lockdown, I think it’s important to get the message out as quickly as possible, especially since it had the potential to impact pickup procedures.
I’m sure the staff at [your school] have already considered the most efficient and comprehensive way to contact parents when news such as this needs to be disseminated. However, there must be a faster way to inform all parents when information is time-sensitive or emergent. Perhaps adding an email, classroom-based phone tree, or automated text messaging system would help to speed up the process, as well as having a better chance at reaching all parents. I would simply like to suggest that having multiple avenues of communication, rather than just a phone call to the home phone, would be prudent in the event of an emergency.
Thank you for your time, and for your dedication to making [your school] the best school it can be. I look forward to enrolling my other sons as they reach kindergarten age.
This past Wednesday, I received a phone call from the principal in response to this letter. He apologized for how long it took to get back to me, explaining that they don't get much actual mail and that it took a while to find its way to his desk. He thanked me for my concerns and suggestions and said I was not the only parent to complain about how long it had taken to get the information that day. He also acknowledged the potential for rumors to start and that it was important that everyone get the same message at the same time to prevent this. He told me that the school district was already in talks with a company that can do mass text messaging and that this incident definitely made them aware that they need a quicker way to inform parents, especially when after-school activities and pick-up procedures may be affected. He did stress that their number one priority is to ensure the safety of the kids, with which I readily agreed.
All-in-all, I really appreciated his response. I was surprised and pleased to receive a personal phone call, that he had read my letter, that he understood and shared my concerns, and that he was already working to improve the system.
When we think about school emergencies, lately, our minds immediately go to incidents such as Columbine and Sandy Hook, but it's reasonable to think of more "mundane" emergencies, as well. What if there were a fire at the school? A water main break, a blackout, a failure of the heating or air conditioning system? There are many reasons the school may need to quickly get in touch with parents, and I'm glad that a non-emergency provided the impetus to make the change, rather than a system failing to perform when lives were at stake.
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