Crisis Management: Slow Response Characterizes a Teacher/Sex Case: Crisis Response
A 2006 teacher sexual misconduct controversy in North Carolina was full of enough bad moves (and a few good ones) that it was hard to know where to begin. The middle school teacher molested students and in 2007 was sentenced to prison. The problem was that parents first raised the alarm in December 2005 yet the teacher wasn’t seriously investigated until the following August and only arrested one month later in September 2006. Before we look at the mistakes, it is important to state that the public school system and the sheriff’s department have implemented a raft of changes to avoid a repeat and to educate students. But, alas, for learning purposes, let’s look at the problems:
Most crises smolder (72%) before they blow up and this one smoked for months before the schools and sheriff eventually ran this case to ground. One parent told a local newspaper columnist that he even alerted the FBI in 2005 and nothing apparently came of it. Most crises are due to management failure (58%) and this one had the hallmarks.
Parents (stakeholders) must be told if there is a threat to their children and yet they didn’t hear from the schools about the investigation until two days after the newspaper reported it. Parents want to know, “When did you learn about this and how fast did you get that person away from my child?” It was hardly reassuring that action was slow and that reporters told parents before school officials did.
However, there were some ameliorating moves.
You need to cut your losses, get moving and the school board chairman didn’t sugarcoat it. He said to the newspaper, “I think in hindsight you would look back and say you certainly should have had a much quicker response to this allegation…” He ordered a special board meeting to look at how the case could have been handled better. The local Sheriff called a press conference to admit that his department did not do all it should to chase down the leads.
Fixing the problem is crucial. The superintendent said he will beef up the health curriculum to teach students how to better protect themselves from a predator. A new video will further explain the issue to students. They’ll also get a hotline. Despite the initial notification lag, once the schools began informing parents about the teacher they mounted a full court press of communications that lasted days.
The Sheriff announced he had already changed procedures to prevent a recurrence. Henceforth a detective will be assigned to every case presented by a school resource officer.
Despite the corrective actions, as Shakespeare once wrote, “All are punished.” A mishandled case like this taints credibility.
School administrators, employees and parents will long remember the front page headlines including “…response called slow.” An editorial headline title asked “Bungled?” Too bad. This school system typically jumps on such cases and quickly tells parents. I worked alongside the superintendent on a much worse case years ago and he did the right thing with little prompting.
When trouble strikes, the public demands one thing from leaders: do something! Teacher misconduct cases can almost be done by the numbers. Inform and collaborate with authorities, suspend the teacher pending investigation, begin corrective action and notify parents. Tell the media. They will likely learn of the investigation anyway through law enforcement or from parents and it is better to be perceived pro-active than reactive.
I have said before that lack of speed is the killer in crisis management. It appears that many who were hammered in this affair are re-acquainting themselves with this and the other principles. They know better.