A series of negative incidents connected to school districts throughout southwest Ohio have already this year forced officials to confront a growing challenge in the education world: Quickly communicating with parents and the community about uncomfortable topics through a variety of platforms.
In just the first six weeks of 2018, the area has experienced multiple controversial incidents, some of which drew international attention. From remarks by a Mason teacher about an African-American student being “lynched” to Kings students sporting racist basketball jerseys to a Hamilton teacher and coach and Franklin school staffer accused of sex crimes involving students, this school year has been impacted by episodes that demanded fast responses by district leaders.
Then when Hamilton superintendent Tony Orr was placed on administrative leave last week by the district’s board of education as an investigation looks into whether he violated board policies, it was the latest shakeup of a local district.
School officials didn’t plan for devoting district time, resources and energy to these unforeseeable scandals. Nor, said state and local school officials, to repairing another frequent casualty when scandals erupt: A school system’s reputation.
“Social media and smartphones have definitely impacted the way schools react to incidents in their school districts,” said veteran Butler County superintendent Phil Cagwin, who now leads Monroe Schools.
“Unfortunately public schools are now forced to expend a good deal of time and resources to the effort of getting the truth out to parents, students and community members, due to the inaccuracies that are spread on social media.
The social media impact
One of the most important parts about responding to incidents, especially when they involve students and children, is speed, officials said.
“The most important response should be to reaffirm immediately the mission and beliefs of the district,” said Tom Ash, a former Ohio school superintendent and now a top official with the Buckeye Association of School Administrators.
“Whether it be reinforcing the school’s commitments to diversity and tolerance or to the protection of students, the initial communication must underscore the values the district has as a public institution.”
But it doesn’t end there, he said.
“This initial communication should next indicate the actions which the school district will take next,” Ash said. “Normally, this would include an immediate suspension of an employee (if involved) and the nature of the investigation which will follow.”
Weeks afterward, Mason school officials admitted and later publicly apologized to the mother of the black student — who was told by his white Mason Middle School teacher he would be “lynched” by his white classmates for not completing his work — saying they acted too slowly to remedy the verbal offense and to adequately punish the teacher.
After news surfaced that Kings schools students wore jerseys with racist names on their backs while playing in a recreational basketball league, officials at Kings Schools apologized, and the school board vice president quickly resigned citing his son wearing one of the racially offensive jerseys.
Both Warren County school districts have for years been among the top performers in Ohio, building reputations over decades.
Ray Murray, who until November was an eight-year veteran of the Lakota Board of Education, points out how the near-instantaneous nature of social media can quickly damage long-standing school reputations.
“Digital technology has allowed parents to weigh in on issues concerning school districts quicker than ever before,” Murray said. “Community forums on Facebook and Twitter are exploding with comments from parents about (school) district happenings and occurrences.”
For every legitimately reported school scandal and its negative impact on a school system’s image, district officials much more often have to put out social media controversies about rumored misbehaviors, he said. And quickly.
One of this news organization’s initial stories on Mason teacher’s racist remark elicited more than 700 social media comments, many from local school parents.
Why quick responses are necessary
Murray recalled an alleged bullying incident at a Lakota School that, though untrue, gained fast digital momentum in the community.
“After a few days of posting, parents were ready to storm the board of education and demand answers to a situation that was shallow in facts,” Murray said.
Disproving a rumor sometimes isn’t enough, he said.
“Parents continued to post nasty remarks even though the situation never occurred simply because they wanted to weigh on something,” Murray said. “Quite often, the facts are not always out, and speculation has taken over.”
A speedy response by the schools is key, Cagwin said, especially when false information explodes on social media.
“It’s also out there to the public before we’ve had a chance to vet the accuracy of the claims and spreads so quickly with social media,” Cagwin said.
Mason Schools was impacted by another racist incident last week, when a high school student recited on a short, social media video filmed at his school a series of racist slurs and African-American stereotypes that further inflamed the already divided school community.
The district had recently launched a series of new racial and cultural diversity training programs for students and teachers to augment their existing efforts, but Mason Spokeswoman Tracey Carson said even more needs to be done.
“We expect everyone in our school community — staff and students — to treat each other with respect and dignity. We have a responsibility to get better, and we have a responsibility to lead,” she said,