COMMUNICATING TRAGEDY

Two tragic events involving Pearland ISD students occurred within the past two weeks, both of which have been widely covered on social and traditional media. In addition, a TV station reported incredibly inaccurately on still another unrelated matter at an elementary campus. While the school district was able to give out limited information, there was much that could not be said in all three events – for reasons I will explain.

All the events sparked an avalanche of social media among students, parents, and in some cases, comments from far flung places across the nation, eager to join in.

Some social media comments are accurate and supportive. But there are many other comments/critiques that run the gamut from criticism to gossip to blatantly false portrayals of what has happened in each case.

Obviously this causes confusion – and people naturally want the school district to comment on what is true and what is not. It’s not that simple. For example, a question many might think can be answered accurately is: “Was this an attempted suicide by a student?”

Sometimes the police make that determination; other times it remains uncertain; and in most cases, the family of the student involved requests privacy. Thus, the school district’s primary obligation is to respect their privacy in accordance with law by avoiding the release of confidential or unconfirmed information.

Unfortunately, most TV and print journalists have a different standard. We can predict with 100% certainty that the minute any tragedy occurs, they will arrive on our campuses, try to get permission to interview individual students and staff – and when told to respect our boundaries, will go looking for any passer-by to comment. The media will generally dress up their report as expressing the grief of students or the concern for those affected. But most folks realize that it is primarily done to attract eyeballs to their media content. Concern for others is NOT paramount.

So while the media defends its “journalism” as the “people’s right to know,” the school district must obey the law, good conscience, and the privacy of those affected.

Unfortunately from that one sided beginning, the initial TV/print stories then mushroom on social media – with the school district still unable to correct or comment. Some of the comments made on social media are absolutely outrageous and inaccurate. For example,  a parent in our district recently repeated and reinforced teenage social media speculation containing horrific and untrue depictions of one of these events. The parent ended by saying that “heads should roll,” presumably meaning campus personnel. While others were alerted to the post and it was removed by those governing it, the damage had already circulated among many.

Unrelated to the incidents mentioned above, I’m being briefed today on a media story repeating a required health department warning sent out to the parents at one of our schools regarding an unconfirmed measles case. As usual, only AFTER the media sensationalized it, we’re told that there is NOT a confirmed measles case at that school!  But as usual, we have social media critics telling the Principal what she should have done, asking about the name of the student, etc.

There is one saving grace I should mention. When school personnel are educated on social media perils, they are told that “Parents are often our best defense.”  We have noticed that when outrageous, inaccurate or premature things are said, there is usually a response from parents that is more accurate, reasonable and supportive. Thank God!

Tragedy brings out both the best and worst in human nature. I’d like to finish this posting by dwelling on the best. A teacher praised the Principal of one of our schools, who recently dealt with one of the tragedies:

“I know you are aware how blessed we are to have [her]as our principal, but I felt compelled to just reach out to each of you to let you know just how appreciative our entire campus is for her leadership.  This past week was incredibly difficult on top of an already emotionally tough year. Her strength and wisdom truly lead us through. When we needed a plan, she developed one. When we needed each other, she brought us together. When we needed to be honest with our students, she found the words.  Most importantly when we needed hope, she led us back to our faith. I know this all took a toll on her as well but she made sure her staff and our students were cared for first. I know she doesn’t like public praise, but [she] epitomizes the strength and compassion that every leader should encompass and we feel she deserves a moment of praise. My deepest appreciation for all of the support that was sent to our campus from all over the district. We are Pearland ISD Strong and a strong [campus] Family!”

Though the district has limitations on information that can be shared, our teachers, administrators, staff, and the vast majority of parents perform heroically in the midst of tragedies. They deserve our praise.

 

10 Responses to “COMMUNICATING TRAGEDY”


  1. 1 Amy Wimberly December 6, 2017 at 11:21 pm

    Thank you Dr. Kelly for being a leader and always standing up for what you believe in and for the good of our district. God Bless you.

  2. 2 Delfina Pei December 6, 2017 at 8:20 pm

    Leave Houston now! Your hate is unwelcome in our loving and inclusive city!

  3. 4 David Martinez December 6, 2017 at 11:36 am

    This is trash. John Kelly you are trash. How about instead of blaming others for your shortcomings you try and man up. Take the blame and be better at your job.

    • 5 Amy Wimberly December 6, 2017 at 11:18 pm

      You sound like the trashy one…how is he going to man up to something that was totally out of his control. You man up and thank him for being a leader in such a fallen society.

  4. 6 Nancy Dalton December 5, 2017 at 10:33 pm

    Thank you, Dr. Kelly.

  5. 7 Anthony Tupper December 5, 2017 at 10:13 pm

    Well said Dr. Kelly. I was raised by a school teacher, and am fully aware of the almost “doctor-patient” type rules regarding communication with the public about district tragedies and those involved. Pearland has handled all of these instances with dignity and respect. Your mission to make world class schools begins and ends with the amazing people who work, attend and associate with Pearland ISD. Keep up the great job!

  6. 8 Toni Carter December 5, 2017 at 9:44 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with your remarks about the tradgedies that have affected students in our district. Those incidences are personal, and there is little the district owes parents in the way of information. The media’s presence only serves to sensationalize and complicate such incidences.

    I disagree, though, about issues that affect parents, such as the story about the substitute teacher, and the controversy about your son’s social media posts. There are issues where every child is potentially affected, and parents are due reassurance as to the safety of the children entrusted in your care. The news story about the substitute at C.J. Harris was obviously incomplete and misleading, but when the district does not supply their own side of the story, what should parents do? Most parents would simply like a reassurance that the district will make an effort to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again. And a simple statement that you don’t share your son’s views would reassure everybody. As a parent stated at the last board meeting, silence is powerful.

    • 9 Dr. John P. Kelly December 6, 2017 at 2:29 pm

      The false Fox26 coverage with regard to the substitute teacher report was addressed again, after consultation with our attorneys, such that we can at least deny the grossly inaccurate statements within that story without violating the privacy of the student/family/employee(s). That update was sent on December 5, 2017 to every media outlet that requested it and to any who had written us about it. But it is not appropriate to give that story even more coverage by continuing to publicize its false and defamatory accusations. Reasonable people understand that.

      If you do not have the update on that story from another source, you may email our Communications Director and she will forward it to you.

      The substitute teacher wasn’t involved in ANY of what occurred and did not make the required report to the police. Since the information in the TV story was grossly inaccurate, your comment that we should “make an effort to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again” is better directed at the TV station.

      With regard to the other issue you mention, I’ve already addressed it to more than 2,000 employees within our district. Thereafter, various media outlets reported on that response, It seems reasonable that if you or anyone needed reassurance, you would have read those things already.

      I really appreciate the many, many educators and community members who know me, my beliefs, and have given me such wonderful support throughout this difficult time.

      • 10 Shenadrei Wagner December 7, 2017 at 5:46 am

        Dr,.Kelly’s actions speak for his beliefs. His letter to PISD employees made its way to social media as well, and his transparently should have quelled any concerns. He remains in our prayers, for neiether parenthood nor leadership is easy.


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