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Schools urged to prepare for media chaos in emergency

PROVO — A TV news helicopter hovered so close to the scene of a school shooting at a middle school in Jonesboro, Ark., that blankets were blown off the dead bodies of students and teachers.

Few of the nation's 14,000 school districts are prepared for the intrusive media onslaught that descends on any community immediately following such a tragedy, said Richard Long, a Brigham Young University communications professor who has researched the subject and worked with Utah school districts to prepare contingency plans.

"It's difficult to get people to understand how chaotic things will be if they have a situation like this," Long said. "It's like a woman trying to explain childbirth to someone. You can't imagine the pain and frustration that must go on, even if you want to."

He said the 25 school shootings that have killed 50 students and teachers and wounded 119 more since 1992 are just the tip of the iceberg.

"There have been literally hundreds of cases where school districts or police have uncovered plots to emulate Columbine or target teachers or students," said Long, an expert in corporate public relations.

Long's research looked into how school districts and communities should deal with the fallout when those preventive measures fail. For example, officials in Littleton, Colo., fielded more than 10,000 phone calls from more than 20 nations after two students killed 15 and wounded 23 at Columbine High School in 1999.

"The premise is that if you prepare an effective contingency plan, you can reduce the trauma of such a disaster," he said.

While he found no data to suggest media coverage of school violence led to additional incidents, a lack of preparedness for the amount of coverage did worsen the already devastating events in some of the nine communities Long visited. He interviewed school officials, mayors, police officers, reporters and parents to establish a composite picture of the incidents. He also surveyed 307 school districts to determine their level of emergency readiness.

It's impossible to predict where the next disgruntled student might take aim at classmates, he said, though the pattern suggests it will happen in a town of 50,000 or less with a reputation for being peaceful.

"The first problem is getting rid of the complacency that this couldn't happen to us, that it could never happen in a nice place like Provo and Orem," Long said. "That myth has been debunked by these incidents that pretty much have happened in nice places with churchgoing people."

Long helped draft the crisis plan for the Provo City School District and said Salt Lake-area school districts have followed good strategies, such as hiring public information officers to deal with the media and earmarking funds to create plans. That puts those districts ahead of the 80 percent in his survey that plan to have their superintendents handle media inquiries.

"No superintendent could field hundreds or perhaps thousands of media inquiries and still work with law enforcement officials, contact families, orchestrate campus evacuations, brief the school board and handle all his or her other duties," Long said.

The Alpine School District in northern Utah County has followed Long's advice to have specific roles identified for employees throughout the district. A flip chart outlines the assignments that would be coordinated by a safety committee.

Long said the communities that have fared best under the tremendous scrutiny that follows a school shooting are those that have had local officials, perhaps members of the chamber of commerce, who could handle questions about the area.

A quality plan, if tested frequently, can reduce chaos, quickly provide information to key audiences and reduce harmful rumors, Long said.

Public-information officers from the Nebo, Granite and Davis school districts attended Long's lecture at BYU on Thursday and said they were confident in their plans but surprised by the level of coverage he described.

"We're well-prepared," said Michele Bartmess, a media relations specialist in the Granite School District. "But I can see how everything could fall apart quickly if things happened on that scale."