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One More Crisis Communications Challenge For Educators: The 2020 Election

By Thom Fladung, Hennes Communications

A few months into a school year unlike any other, administrators and teachers have been challenged to figure out: how to reopen safely; whether to have in-person classes, virtual classes or a hybrid; how to get students to and from school; whether and how to have sports and other extracurriculars – and much more.

Now, they just have to survive the election season amid an extraordinarily tense, socially and politically charged atmosphere – while remembering well the challenges from the 2016 election.

The Washington Post reported that an average of nearly two incidents of politically oriented harassment or bullying per school week have been publicly reported over the past four years. And because so much of the bullying never appears in the news, The Post noted that its figure represents a small fraction of the actual total.

The political and social tensions, magnified by relentless arguments on social media, have played out with clashes over Black Lives Matter in classrooms, Blue Lives Matter at football games, students bullying each other over masks, school board members resigning after inappropriate Facebook posts and a host of other issues.

What’s a beleaguered educator to do? Try history class. We learned lessons in 2016 that are worth applying in 2020.

In the first days after the 2016 presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project administered an online survey to K–12 educators from across the country. Over 10,000 teachers, counselors, administrators and others said that the election had a profoundly negative impact on schools and students.

  • Nine out of 10 educators who responded saw a negative effect on students’ mood and behavior following the election.
  • Eight in 10 reported heightened anxiety on the part of marginalized students, including immigrants, Muslims, African Americans and LGBT students.
  • Half said that students were targeting each other based on which candidate they’d supported.
  • Four in 10 heard derogatory language directed at students of color, Muslims, immigrants and people based on gender or sexual orientation.

And while much has been written about the influence of President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric, the SPLC also cited students who said they were harassed for supporting Trump or Republicans.

At Hennes, shortly after the 2016 election, we helped a school dealing with a high-profile incident in which a group of students organized a letter writing campaign citing instances when they’d been harassed for being politically conservative.

Among other effective steps, the head of that school created a video in which she said: “I want every kid, regardless of political affiliation, to feel like this is a school that’s going to help them hone their thinking and skills so that they too can ascend to those roles of responsibilities. If our school has fallen short, as clearly it has, we have to figure this out.”

Two-thirds of the Southern Poverty Law Center survey respondents reported that administrators have been “responsive” to the politically based incidents in schools.

But four out of 10 didn’t think their schools had action plans to respond to acts of hate and bias.

The challenges won’t end on Election Day. The findings from that 2016 post-election survey and a previous survey conducted during the 2016 primary season showed that teachers, principals and school district leaders had an oversized job healing the rifts within school communities for the rest of the school year and beyond.

There were schools that reported getting through the 2016 election relatively whole. They cited working at establishing inclusive welcoming communities, having response programs in place and nurturing qualities of empathy and compassion among students. Many of them reported that students were affected, but that they had the language and practices — talking circles, student-led groups, leadership clubs, character programs and proactive staff — to help them avoid conflict.

Here are some steps the SPLC recommends based on that survey and its research:

  • Set the tone. Consider sending communications now to staff and families that acknowledge the heightened tensions around the election and affirm your school’s values, set expectations about inclusion and respect, and explain your vision for the school community.
  • Double down on anti-bullying strategies. Encourage everyone in the school community to be aware of bullying, harassment and bias in all their forms. Remind them of the school’s written policies and set the expectation that your staff be ready to act. As the Southern Poverty Law Center puts it, not everyone has to be a superhero, but everyone can be an ally and an upstander.
  • Encourage courage. Let staff and students know that you expect them to speak up when they see or hear something that denigrates any member of the school community. “When students interrupt biased language, calmly ask questions, correct misinformation and echo others who do the same, they send their peers a clear message: This kind of language doesn’t fly here,” the SPLC said.
  • Be ready for a crisis. Remember how four out of 10 teachers didn’t think their schools had action plans to respond to incidents of hate and bias?

Do you have an action plan – that includes communications?  When an incident happens, you won’t have time to learn how to manage it. You need to be prepared.

And here are some other steps we’d recommend:

  • Does your code of conduct speak to politics or related issues? If so, remind your community about that.
  • Review social media policies with staff and faculty. Free speech certainly is involved. But so is your concern that what people do and say on social media may affect your school and its reputation.
  • Review dress codes. Do yours speak to clothing with political messages? And what do you consider a political message? Make America Great? Black Lives Matter? However you define a political message, it should be enforced consistently. Get your policies in order now.

Because of the heightened emotion, half the teachers surveyed by the SPLC in 2016 were hesitant to discuss the election in class. Some principals told teachers to refrain from discussing or addressing the election in any way.

Have you established a position on this – and communicated it?

Finally, when considering all of this, remember that communications plans are not evergreen documents. They must be reviewed and updated regularly to address emerging issues, new protocols and new concerns. This golden rule is even more essential during the 2020-2021 school year and this election season. Be ready to adjust the methods you are using to communicate and perhaps add some new ones.  Consider what other districts and schools are doing to reach their stakeholders effectively and adopt their ideas and best practices.

Most important, listen to parents, teachers, staff and students and adjust your communications plan to address their needs.

No school administrator or teacher we know campaigned for this role. Nevertheless, the parents and students who depend on them are looking for leadership during a time that no one has led us through before.

Thom Fladung is managing partner of Hennes Communications. For more information about effective crisis communications for your school, contact him at or 216-213-5196.




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