Christen Steidl thinks it took way too long to hear about the creepy-looking guy hanging out near the school.
“I would have wanted to know at the end of the school day,” said the Oak Hills Elementary parent, echoing the lament of dozens of others on the Lakeville school’s Facebook page.
But the district itself is more cautious.
“The last thing we want to do as a district is to have parents feel like their kids are unsafe at school,” said Linda Swanson, Lakeville’s spokeswoman. “At the same time, we don’t want to alarm them without good cause.”
A recent sequence of events involving a self-appointed tester of the district’s security arrangements has raised delicate questions about how schools should react in an ambiguous situation, well short of a full-blown crisis such as a shooting.
With cellphones allowing for constant interaction between parents and kids and school violence often in the news, school communication has entered a new era, one in which parents expect to know immediately about everything that happens at school.
But experts say it has to be handled on a case-by-case basis.
“How a district chooses to [communicate about crises] is as varied as there are school districts,” said Scott Knight, chief of Chaska’s Police Department.
While some districts err on the side of caution and communicate frequently, others try to balance parents’ desire to know with providing too much information.
The debate stems from an incident in the parking lot of Lakeville North High School. On May 22, Michael Adrian, armed with knives, an arrow, a slingshot and a rock, appeared on a skateboard in the school parking lot.
Two teachers approached and called police. Adrian said that he was glad the teachers showed up because he was trying to test school security. Police arrested him nearby for possessing weapons on school property, and the school issued a no-trespassing order.
A week and a half later, Adrian appeared near Oak Hills Elementary, but didn’t venture on school grounds.
Though staff received a picture and e-mail about Adrian the day of the incident and again on June 2, parents didn’t receive an e-mail about him until June 5, the last day of school.
Swanson said there were several reasons the district didn’t communicate with parents until late in the game.
The incident happened outside of a school building and “students were never affected.” Police didn’t initially deem Adrian a threat and were able to arrest him soon after they arrived.
There were many things the public doesn’t know about the situation, she said.
“So in some situations, it’s very unsatisfying to tell people a little bit and not be able to tell them everything,” she said. The district always has students’ safety in mind and “we know a real, real threat when we see it,” she said.
She cited a bomb threat situation at Lakeville North two years ago, in which the school went into lockdown and parents received phone calls and e-mails. In addition, parents are notified of any incident that happens in a building, like a flood or fire, or if there is a busing issue, she said.
But in contrast to Lakeville’s response, experts said that communicating early and clearly about a safety concern is key, even when the threat is no longer imminent.
Knight, who works closely with Eastern Carver County schools, said it is good practice for districts to “get out in front of” a security issue and tell parents about it right away.
“Some may think that, ‘Well, nothing happened, therefore there’s nothing to report,’ ” he said. “The flip side is that if word gets out, it can’t stay quiet.”
Parents are “really comforted” when they are told what the threat was, how the school responded and that everyone was prepared. And schools already communicate in situations like severe weather, he said.
Paul Omodt, a Twin Cities-based crisis communications expert, said he advises schools to create detailed communications and response plans for crises.
Most districts already have several channels of communication available, including services providing automated phone calls, e-mail blasts and text messages, he said.
“The first person [communication] should come from should be the source, not the media,” he added.
Different districts have different philosophies regarding communication during a crisis, said Kristi Mussman, spokeswoman for the Prior Lake-Savage district. “Really, when we have a school incident, we make decisions on a case-by-case basis,” she said.
The district strives for transparency with parents “whenever possible,” she said. Before rumors start flying, “we want them to know what’s going on.”
And “if police are involved, more often than not, we send out e-mail communication [to parents] within 24 hours,” she said.
Every district said it takes its lead from police in how to respond in a crisis.
In Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, spokesman Tony Taschner said he also looks at each situation individually, but “whenever possible, we want to give parents the information and they can decide how to act on it,” he said.
At the same time, the district tries “to protect against creating unrealistic expectations” with parents regarding communication, he said.
Parents don’t pay as much attention if you communicate too often, he said.
He recalled a situation five years ago when a man dressed as Santa was spotted near a school bus stop, watching kids come and go. The district sent a letter home to parents in that case, with the man’s description and a suggestion that they discuss safety with their kids, he said.
“There’s no hard and fast, right and wrong” when communicating with parents, he said.
School communication is always evolving, Lakeville’s Swanson said, and as technology changes, there’s “not only a need but an expectation … for immediate communication.”
Taschner, Mussman and Swanson said they regularly attend workshops on how to handle communicating in a crisis, and the Minnesota School Public Relations Association often holds a breakout session on the topic at its conferences, Swanson said
The Lakeville school board met Thursday to discuss its safety and security plan, which includes communication protocol. She said the topic is discussed regularly and the meeting was unrelated to the recent incident.
“We’re always looking at how to do it better,” she said.
Cassady Rotthoff, a 2014 Lakeville North graduate, said that Lakeville parents have high expectations when it comes to safety, so sending an e-mail soon after the incident would have been the least they could do.
“Especially with Lakeville families, even when something small like that happens, we tend to blow it out of proportion,” she said. “We’re known for our safety, and we want to keep it that way.”