Residents frustrated after Park City School District communication breakdown
May 10, 2016
Sylvia Hebert is outraged at the Park City School District and she is not alone.
After the district posted on Facebook late in the evening May 2 about an October threat that had made mention of the following day, parents and students were quick to react. They were upset that the threat was becoming public nearly seven months after the initial incident, and they were angry that the post was vague, lacking the detail that could have put their worries to rest.
Many wondered whether their children would, in fact, be safe at school May 3, despite reassurance from school leaders that they had taken "all necessary precautions to keep our students safe," including an increased police presence on the Kearns Boulevard campus.
And what first started with rumors circulating through social media — which is what prompted the district to post on Facebook — soon became a public relations nightmare.
In the view of Hebert, and many others in the community, the incident is the largest and latest example of the district mishandling how it communicates with residents.
"I’ll be the first to say that I know there are threats every day in this community, and they don’t inform us, which is probably a good thing," she said. "So why were we informed when we were of this threat, and why did I get an email entitled ‘Potential threat May 3’? That’s pretty serious stuff."
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Hebert was hardly alone. Many others expressed similar frustration, both in the comments of the Facebook post and in the following days.
"Completely unacceptable and alarming!" wrote Elizabeth Rebsamen on the Facebook post. "It’s obvious the only reason we are being informed is because ‘word got out’. What is being done to prevent it from happening on another day? What happened with the student(s) who made the threat? I think we need more than a ‘kids are safe, it was handled in October’ answer!"
The complaints are not falling on deaf ears, said Molly Miller, the district’s community relations specialist. In the aftermath of the situation, Miller, who is new to the district, has consulted with communications experts in the area to craft a crisis communication plan.
The plan aims to give the district a better internal messaging system so teachers and staff members aren’t left in the dark, find out how parents prefer to be contacted in similar situations and ensure that, next time, the messaging comforts the community, rather than igniting a panic.
"We want to provide reassurance, especially in a situation where it had been handled," Miller said. "Kids were in no danger, so we want to make people stop and breathe."
The plan will include a checklist for district leaders to follow in future situations. At the top of the list is informing the Park City Police Department and Summit County Sheriff’s Office, a step that was skipped May 2. Miller has met with Police Department Capt. Phil Kirk to discuss the best way for that communication to take place.
"They were kind of caught by surprise," she said, "and I’m just so horrified by that because they need to know — they’re the crucial part of this."
Miller also spoke about why the district didn’t inform the public of the threat when it happened or give more advance warning that there would be an increased police presence May 3. She said the district originally made the decision not to go to the public in conjunction with the police, who deal with threats, both on campus and off, all the time.
"The advanced warning thing is always a tricky thing," she said. "If there’s ever any danger to anyone, of course we would release information and whatever sort of communications would need to happen. But really, when we started working with police (in October), they handled it and everything was safe — there was no risk, no danger to students."
Park City Police Chief Wade Carpenter did not return multiple calls seeking comment on the how the police determine whether or not to release information about a threat.
Miller added that residents will notice a stark difference the next time an emergency or news of a threat arises.
"I am committed to making sure parents are communicated with and heard and listened to," she said. "I know people are upset, and I understand that and share that, and we are working so hard to fix it."
Hebert, however, remains skeptical that the district won’t make the same mistakes in the future.
"I’m a big believer in past behavior is a good predictor of future behavior," she said. "And I have not seen a lot of positives come from the school board and school district office. The way they relate to the community is so disconnected. I feel like the board and the district are up on a pedestal, and the staff and the teachers and the parents are the pedestal that they step on. I feel like the communication breakdown is huge."
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