Tuesday, February 27, 2024

2 calls, 2 emails: NHCS defends crisis communications on day of New Hanover High shooting

NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– New Hanover County Schools’ crisis communications were brief on the day a shooting at New Hanover High School left one student injured.

Parents of New Hanover High students directly received two phone calls and two emails from the district Monday, with the communications arriving concurrently, containing the same message. 

RELATED: Unification operation at Williston was disorderly, chaotic post-New Hanover High shooting

With a terrifying video circulating online, the community at large was unsettled after a 15-year-old student fired a gun multiple times inside the school’s crowded catwalk. Many parents, who first heard the news directly from their children who were huddling in classrooms or elsewhere on campus, rushed to the school to assist. 

The district uses the communications platform, SchoolMessenger, to blast out mass messages to hundreds or thousands of caregivers at once. This system is utilized for a variety of purposes, from two-hour delays, to lockdowns, to announcing a hurricane or snow days. When necessary, it can quickly alert families of an ongoing crisis. 

“During a crisis communication situation, there is a process when sending external communications,” Russell Clark, NHCS media relations manager, wrote in a statement. NHCS chief communications officer Josh Smith also shared the statement verbatim in a Twitter thread Tuesday. 

“We first communicate strategically with the families most immediately impacted through both phone and email. We then send messages to all district staff. Next, as appropriate, we share with the media and our external stakeholders and on social media,” the communications team stated.

SchoolMessenger’s platform can target specific audiences, like certain schools’ parents or the district overall. NHCS has more than 60,000 family members in this database and makes efforts to ensure information is up-to-date, especially at the beginning of each school year, the communications team explained. 

Monday, the district called and emailed NHHS families “within minutes to notify them that there was an event at their school,” according to the team.  

The first 911 calls came in at 11:23 a.m., emergency transcript records show. 

Roughly 30 minutes later, the district pushed out its first call and email at 11:52 and 11:53 a.m. with the same message: “New Hannover [sic] High School is currently on lockdown. We are asking families to NOT come to the building. Law enforcement is currently on the scene. We will update our New Hanover Highschool [sic] Families as more information becomes available.” 

Out of 3,002 phone contacts in the district’s NHHS database, 860 answered the first call and 1,009 reached voicemails. NHHS has about 1,500 students.

By the time parents were notified through this alert, students were already on the move. The first group of students began evacuating nearly 10 minutes earlier, as early as 11:44 a.m.

At 12:44 and 12:45 p.m. the district acknowledged for the first time a shooting had occurred through a simultaneous call and email: “The Sheriff’s office has confirmed this is NOT an active shooter situation.” In the same message, it announced students had been escorted to Williston and would be released upon a final headcount, and Gregory Elementary and Williston Middle schools were under shelter-in-place. 

This push was phoned to 4,667 numbers –– this time presumably adding on Gregory Elementary and Williston Middle contacts (the district has yet to clarify) –– and 4,342 email addresses. The call was answered by 1,529 contacts with 1,402 reaching voicemail. 

Parents of Gregory Elementary say their children were actually under lockdown –– a more intensive procedure that involves students remaining quiet (the district has yet to acknowledge this occurred).

Separately, Laney High School was also put under shelter in place as social media rumors were swirling, warning of possible gang retaliation for the New Hanover shooting (authorities have not acknowledged whether the incident was indeed gang-related). At least one call was made to these parents (the district could not immediately share details of the Laney alerts by press time).

In a Tuesday email to families, Laney principal Sharon Dousharm wrote she was aware many parents didn’t receive the calls. Some parents reported the call was marked as spam when it came in, which Dousharm advised a spam blocker may be the issue.

“I have given a report to some folks to go through and see if they can determine why this is happening,” she wrote. “It is also occurring at other schools. It is a new system that our district is using. Please be patient as we work through any kinks.” 

Addressing the reports of parents who say they didn’t receive a call, the district communication team explained it also shares notices through social media. 

Before announcing the Monday 5 p.m. press conference, the district shared three posts on Facebook with pertinent information, with the first two mirroring the first and second alerts shared via SchoolMessenger and the third announcing students were being released at the MLK Center. This information was not emailed or shared via phone call. 

Around 5 p.m. the district announced in a Facebook post information its administrators had just shared in the press conference: There would be no school for students Tuesday and a crisis communication line had been established to help students, staff, or parents navigate the traumatizing experience. This announcement was also not shared via email or phone call. 

At the press conference, administrators repeatedly referenced they were under a command control situation, with the sheriff’s office taking the lead.

“We understand that we may not always have the correct information for every family, and this is why we cast a wide net when putting critical information out through indirect messaging on social media and our media partners,” the communications team explained in its statement. “We always want our families to feel informed, and we regret anytime they aren’t.” 

“We are constantly working to improve our communication methods to ensure the information is delivered accurately and efficiently.”

Send tips and comments to Johanna F. Still at johanna@localdailymedia.com

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