Education leaders naturally want to reassure students, parents, staff and the community when a school safety incident takes place. It is quite normal for a school superintendent or headmaster to make a statement to the media like “our schools are safe” in an effort to calm fears. However, statements of this sort made when stress levels are high and people are in pain due to a tragedy can have two very negative and lasting consequences increased exposure to civil liability and an increased loss of public confidence. While issues of potential civil liability exposure should generally be viewed in balance with the many other demands of effectively operating schools, they should not be ignored.
Statements that we commonly see such as “safety is our number one priority” are easily attacked and refuted in a deposition or trial. For example, an attorney may ask a school superintendent who makes such a public statement if safety is the largest budget item during a deposition. As the answer to this question will always be no, this line of questioning will likely be used to suggest that the school leader has intentionally misled the public in regards to the actual level of safety. While this point may seem trite to some, I have seen a number of instances were a single poorly worded phrase has had a dramatic impact in school safety litigation. Working as an expert witness in school safety malpractice cases reveals just how important wording can be. In the same manner, the media frequently uses similar tactics when covering school safety which can do serious long term damage to the reputation of school leaders and their organizations. One superintendent in an affluent well-funded suburban school system made the mistake of stating during a school board meeting that his school system was the safest district in the nation while addressing an incident that had occurred. When he was challenged as to the validity of this statement by parents and the media, he stuck to his statement rather than modifying it. Area media began to hammer the superintendent and the district by reporting as many safety incidents as possible for more than a year. The damage to the district’s credibility lasts to this day.
Fortunately, there are ways to help reasonably assert the organization’s emphasis on safety while reducing the problems that can result from these types of statements. By carefully choosing the way such statements are phrased, school spokespersons can get the message out that safety is a priority in an honest, effective and easily defensible manner. The first rule of thumb is to ask, “Could I prove that this assertion is true and valid in court and under oath?”. For example, if we go back to the oft heard statement that “student safety is our number one priority” the answer is clearly no. However, the statement “we take student safety seriously in our school district” would be much easier to validate in a district that does indeed have a comprehensive and effective safety program.
Taking the time to carefully phrase statements relating to student and staff safety can save money and can help to build rather than reduce confidence.