How to Communicate with Parents After a School Incident

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We all know that working with kids and teenagers is hard. Rewarding, yes — but it can be tough. Students are in the process of maturing, and you often have to navigate sensitive situations that impact student development. In trying times, it can be difficult to figure out the right way to communicate. How you handle and impart bad or sensitive news is incredibly important — it can be the difference between uniting your community or alienating students, parents, and even staff.


HOW TO KNOW WHEN TO SEND A MESSAGE

Some negative instances, such as a student repeatedly showing up tardy to class, are best handled through a single phone call or message to the parents of that student (check out our Auto Notices feature, which automatically notifies parents for student-specific instances like tardies). Others, such as a public threat of violence or a student suicide, should be addressed on a larger scale.

So how do you know when it’s appropriate to reach out to parents? An incident should be addressed in a grade-wide or school-wide message if it:

  • Is being widely discussed on social media in your school community and the facts are not clear

  • Targets a wide scope of students, such as members of a particular racial or ethnic group

  • Is part of a new and growing pattern that needs to be brought to parents’ attention

  • Involves inappropriate behavior that cannot be tolerated and needs to be addressed in order to ensure a safe and healthy learning environment and community

When deciding between contacting a parent, a small group of parents, or sending a grade-wide or school-wide message, put yourself in the parents’ perspective. Is the information you are about to share relevant to that parent and their child? Does it impact the grade level or culture of the entire school? These are important questions to consider when deciding whether or not to address the greater school community.

COMPONENTS OF MESSAGE

1. Overall tone. Make sure to keep your language professional and respectful. The tone of the message needs to reflect the severity of the situation, without seeming too dire or anxious. Be calm, while also understanding and acknowledging the weight of the situation. This is not the time to use emojis or text speak.

Example: "As educators at Lincoln Middle School, we strive to enforce the values of inclusion and diversity, and to include parents and actively involve them in these efforts."

2. Buffer. Rather than jumping straight into bad news, it’s best to ease into the message with a few sentences of positive or neutral information. This buffer could be an expression of community values, a statement of gratitude or good will to parents, or some context for the incident.

Example: "Washington High School is dedicated to maintaining a culture of health and wellness that creates a positive environment for our students to thrive on campus. We are grateful for our wonderful students, staff, and parents who strive to uphold these values and improve our community on a daily basis. "

3. Explanation. After a short buffer, it’s time to provide a clear, succinct explanation of the incident. This explanation should be honest but brief. Minimizing or distorting the facts of what happened will only create mistrust and doubt among those receiving the message. However, honesty does not mean revealing every detail. Some information, such as the names of involved students, is not necessary to understand the significance of the incident. If the school is at fault and an apology is needed — do it early, be brief, and be sincere.

Example: "By now you may have heard that this afternoon, a tenth grade boy brought a gun to school in an attempted premeditated attack."

4. School’s response. Once parents are aware of what has happened, their next question will be: what is being done about it? Any announcement of bad news should be immediately followed by an explanation of what the school has done so far in response, and what the plan of action is going forward. Will responsible parties be disciplined? With what severity? How will the school handle incidents like this in the future? If possible, provide reasoning for the response, such as a district policy. 

Example: "The substance has been confiscated and further action is currently underway with the responsible parties. Washington High School stands by our zero tolerance policy for drug-related incidents, and we are committed to further educating our students about the severity and detriment of drug use."

5. Closing. The end of the message is your chance to circle back to positive values and reassure the community. Your last few sentences should be forward-thinking and ensure that the school is taking this matter seriously and is doing everything in its power to remedy negative impacts. You may discuss how parents can to talk to their children about the incident in a way that will be beneficial and educational. You can also provide information for parents on how to reach out to the school with any concerns, giving them a chance to participate in an ongoing dialogue. The end of the message should reassure parents and make them feel that although a negative incident occurred, the school is handling it appropriately and the community is united in the response.

Example: "Please feel free to reach out to the Dean of Students, Ms. Hernandez, with any further questions. Together, we can work to create a healthy environment for our students both at home and on campus. "

6. Optional: Include Resources. When an incident occurs at school, students are aware of what’s happening, so it’s important to address the issue and hold discussions to further their education, promote holistic development, or help students to process their feelings and unite as a community. Often times, an incident can serve as a starting point for parents to talk to their kids about topics like diversity or substance abuse, so parents will appreciate if you equip them with strategies and information to hold productive conversations with their children. If a traumatic event occurred, it will be helpful to provide parents with resources on how to best help their child process their emotions and recover.

Example: "For more information regarding teen substance abuse, please see the attached resources from the CDC."

As educators at Lincoln Middle School, we strive to enforce the values of inclusion and diversity, and to include parents and actively involve them in these efforts. This means not shying away from difficult conversations, whether they pertain to the world, country or our own school community.

This week, an incident occurred that has challenged us to engage in one of these difficult conversations. On Tuesday sometime after school hours, the backgrounds of all desktop computers in the library were changed to display a message containing threatening racist and homophobic statements that sharply conflict with our school’s values of inclusion and respect for all people. The messages were discovered on Wednesday morning by a librarian, who immediately changed them back to the standard background and informed administration. Lincoln Middle School does not tolerate hateful or violent language. We have filed a police report and are working with investigators to get to the bottom of what happened and take steps, including anti-bias trainings to all of our students and staff, to ensure it does not happen again.

This instance of hate speech comes as a shock, and may upset many members of our community. This is an opportunity for all of us — staff, parents, and students — to reflect on our shared values and think about what we can do to maintain our commitment to inclusion going forward. We want this to be an ongoing dialogue, and we invite concerned parents to reach out via phone or email with any questions or thoughts on the matter. We also encourage parents to talk to their kids about diversity, and we have provided some resources below. Thank you all for uniting with us in our commitment to making Lincoln Middle School a respectful and inclusive learning community.

Resources:

Sample 2: School Shooting Threat

Here at Harbor High School, our top priority is the safety and wellbeing of our students. We value the power of an inclusive community and aim to empower our students, parents, and staff to feel protected on campus and eliminate any threats immediately as they arise.

By now you may have heard that this afternoon, a tenth grade boy brought a gun to school in an attempted premeditated attack. We are extremely fortunate to announce that no one was harmed today and that the student in question has been apprehended. However, we are taking this incident very seriously and are committed to preventing all gun and other school violence in our community. We are here to assure you that there is a comprehensive crisis plan in order to avoid emergencies such as this.

With this event, we are reminded to know the signs of potential gun violence and are encouraging students and adults to speak up if they see any warnings, alarming social media posts, or outside threats. We are grateful to move forward in partnering with the Sandy Hook Promise, a non-profit organization that aims to educate and train schools in active shooter preparedness and protect children from gun violence.

We would also like to take this time to share some resources; we encourage you to have a conversation with your child about what happened today. We hope these resources can help you help your child process today’s events in a healthy way to move forward. Our school counselors are also available at any time during the school day should your child wish to discuss anything they are experiencing.

Feel free to reach out with any remaining questions either by phone or email. Harbor High School is committed to making your child feel safe and secure.

How to Talk to Your Child About School Shootings
Managing Distress After a Mass Shooting
More School Shooting Resources

Sample 3: Substance Abuse at School

Washington High School is dedicated to maintaining a culture of health and wellness that creates a positive environment for our students to thrive on campus. We are grateful for our wonderful students, staff, and parents who strive to uphold these values and improve our community on a daily basis.

In order to do so, it is important we address any on-campus incidents with immediate transparency and clarification so that we may continue to foster a welcoming setting for learning and growth. Earlier this morning, our janitor found remnants of an illegal substance in the women’s bathroom. The substance has been confiscated and further action is currently underway with the responsible parties. Washington High School stands by our zero tolerance policy for drug-related incidents, and we are committed to further educating our students about the severity and detriment of drug use.

Our staff will be implementing regular discussion panels, informative assemblies, and teacher trainings in order maintain awareness and reform around this serious topic. We encourage parents to partake in open dialogue with their students about substance abuse as well.

For more information regarding teen substance abuse, please see the attached resources from the CDC. Our school website is also an informative source for further resources. Please do not hesitate to reach out to our staff with any further questions or concerns regarding the incident. Thank you for continuing to support Washington High School.

CDC Resources

Sample 4: Vaping Epidemic Awareness

At Fox Hill School District, we believe it is our responsibility to monitor the health and wellbeing of all students. As more incidents involving vaping at our schools arise, we want to provide information to all families in order to further educate and protect our students.

We want to make it clear to students that vaping is highly detrimental to their health. Vaping involves inhaling a vapor produced by an electronic vaporizer or e-cigarette, which heats a liquid to generate aerosol. The vapor can contain nicotine, marijuana oil or other substances. While vaping is often marketed as a safe alternative to cigarettes, vape products still contain nicotine, which is an addictive substance that can harm brain development.

There is a new e-cigarette device rapidly gaining popularity, the “Juul” vaporizer. The Juul looks like a small USB flash drive, is small enough to fit in an enclosed hand, and does not emit any odor. It is important that we, as a community, continue to work together in order to combat these devices which may pose harmful effects on our children.

We have increased efforts to monitor vaping by educating teachers and staff on how to recognize vaping devices and enforce school policy. If a student is found in possession of a vaping device, parents will be contacted immediately and the student may face possible suspension, combined with the mandatory completion of educational vaping online trainings.

For more information on the dangers of vaping, please visit the CDC advisory page: https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/basic_information/e-cigarettes/Quick-Facts-on-the-Risks-of-E-cigarettes-for-Kids-Teens-and-Young-Adults.html

Please feel free to reach out to the Dean of Students, Ms. Hernandez, with any further questions. Together, we can work to create a healthy environment for our students both at home and on campus.

Additional resources:

Free counseling services, materials, and trainings are provided by experienced professionals at the California Smokers’ Helpline. Telephone counseling is available 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. Contact 1-800-NO-BUTTS, or enroll online for a free stop smoking program.

For more information on vaping, visit https://www.flavorshookkids.org/. Scroll down to see names, pictures and facts about specific vaping products, as well as other resources.