School e-mails keep parents alerted

Carroll principal's means of quick communication in emergencies praised

October 27, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

The threatening message scrawled on the stall in the boys bathroom suggested that something awful was going to happen in school at 1:25 that afternoon.

Administrators at North Carroll High in Hampstead suspected it might be a hoax, but responded as if it were not. They reviewed surveillance videotapes of the bathroom door. They pulled students from class to interview them. They examined handwriting samples.

Amid the commotion and with just three hours before the threat-maker's deadline, Principal Gary Dunkleberger sat at his computer to let the parents of a few hundred students know what was going on.

"This message is to provide factual information to parents on the principal's emergency e-mail list," he wrote. "A threat was written on the partition in one of the boy's bathrooms."

Without revealing exactly what had been written on the bathroom wall, he continued: "My hope is to reassure you. If I had any reason to believe the threat to be serious, I would be asking for buses to return to take students home right now and that is not the case."

By relaying accurate, if somewhat vague, information directly to parents as the minicrisis unfolded, Dunkleberger believes he also succeeded in stemming the widespread parental panic that has sometimes resulted when gossip fills the void left by an absence of information from a school.

The e-mail list, he says, is a quick, direct solution to getting facts to parents without having to rely on the traditional - but often unreliable - middlemen: students who leave letters from their principal in their lockers and get the bulk of their news from the school rumor mill.

State and county education officials say it is impossible to know exactly how many school administrators are using e-mail for similar purposes. But anecdotal evidence suggests that the number is growing.

"A lot of our schools do that," said Patti Caplan, a spokeswoman with Howard County public schools, adding that school officials knew e-mail was a viable communication tool when a study a few years ago revealed that 87 percent of the households in Howard County had access to the Internet.

"We know that e-mail still can't travel as fast as the grapevine does," Caplan said. "But we've got consistent information going out to everybody. People aren't hearing it secondhand. They're all getting the same information at the same time. And that cuts down on misinformation being spread."

Principals have learned that rumors fly with seemingly record speed whenever police bring drug-sniffing dogs into school or whenever an emergency prompts a lockdown.

"A lot of times kids aren't even aware of why the dogs are brought in or the lockdown occurs," Caplan said.

"If we really want all the details out there in a way so that people are getting accurate information, you don't want kids trying to take home what they think they heard on the PA. We all know the accuracy of that."

Other school officials expressed interest in the emergency e-mail concept.

"That's an awesome idea. I think you just gave me an idea for our school," said Catherine P. Walrod, principal at Hereford Middle School and president of Baltimore County's Secondary School Administrators Association.

Walrod said she has e-mailed parents to remind them about PTA meetings and maintains a list of parents who prefer to receive the school newsletter by e-mail, but has never used electronic mail to inform parents about an emergency.

It was a bomb threat in April 1999 - the same month of the Columbine High shootings in Colorado - that prompted Dunkleberger to issue an invitation in the school newsletter for North Carroll High parents to join an emergency e-mail list.

"Afterward, there were all sorts of rumors that we had another bomb threat or something like that," he said. "If you're principal of a school, you're concerned that parents have factual information rather than hearsay or rumors because very often those rumors are very far from what actually happened. It's like the pass-it-down-the-line game. We have 1,600 kids all wanting to pass it down the line."

As if to reinforce Dunkleberger's point, parents interviewed for this article said their children had told them that the threat on the bathroom wall suggested that the school would blow up, that people would be shot or that someone would die at 1:25 p.m. Oct. 8 at school. School officials would not reveal the exact wording of the threat.

Since the list's inception four years ago, Dunkleberger has alerted parents to a variety of situations, from a police search of seven lockers in October last year to security measures put in place systemwide during last fall's sniper shootings and as the country readied for war with Iraq.

He occasionally uses the list to let parents know about teacher conferences or important meetings, but its effectiveness is tested in emergencies.

Such was the case Oct. 8 as staff at North Carroll in Hampstead scrambled to figure out who had written the threat.

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