Editorial: Examining Communication During the March 23rd Lockdown

On March 23rd, 2022, Hastings High School declared a two-hour delay in order to handle a presumed threat made towards the school. According to Assistant Principal Melissa Hardesty, Principal Lou Adipietro’s school email account received emails during the night before from parents and student Peer Leaders who were concerned about rumors of a student planning to bring a firearm to school the following morning. Immediately, Ms. Hardesty notified the chief of police, who sent police to both the school and the suspected student’s home. The school building was put into a lockdown and lockout: the students already inside the school followed standard lockdown procedure. 

According to Ms. Hardesty, the Hastings High School staff was immediately notified over the loudspeaker and by email about the developing situation. Ms. Hardesty, the superintendent, the assistant superintendent, the chief of police, and the school’s security consultants were all in direct contact with each other throughout that morning.

“Central Office did a great job getting everyone together, and they did so at multiple points that morning,” Ms. Hardesty said. She felt that the school’s response time was appropriate, saying that “within ten minutes of us being taken out of lockdown, we were in a conference room, talking about next steps.” The communication within the school and law enforcement was clearly efficient and effective. 

Yet, there were clear issues with communication to the rest of the student body. “It was difficult to have people on the outside of the building,” said Ms. Hardesty. Around 8:00 AM, there were hundreds of students and staff members outside the building, a dangerous situation in the event of a real threat. Additionally, many students were hearing things indirectly—through friends who heard it from their parents who heard it from Facebook. This led to mass confusion and, in many cases, panic, as there was no information provided directly to the students themselves. 

The communication within the administration and law enforcement was an admirable and critical aspect of the school’s response, but the initial communication to students in the morning requires attention. The school has, so far, communicated to the public through the parents. Communication to parents is essential, but in developing situations, like the one on March 23rd, 2022, it is clumsy to need to include parents as a go-between in order to keep students informed of a developing situation. 

Government can communicate warnings about safety threats and extreme weather through Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), which sends targeted text messages to cellular phones in affected geographical areas. The overwhelming majority of students at Hastings High School have cell phones, and the school could use a system similar to the WEA to communicate warnings and instructions to students in real time. Collecting phone numbers and setting up a warning system would be a good investment for future situations like this one.  

One critical flaw with the WEA involving violent situations is that the perpetrators could also have access to the warnings, which could give them critical information about their potential victims’ whereabouts. Clearly, though, there are ways to use the WEA without aiding the perpetrators of the threats. One simple instruction lacking on March 23rd was simply to tell everyone to go back home, which would not have helped potential perpetrators in any meaningful way but would have substantially expedited students safe departure from the campus .  

During the block before lunch on March 23rd, the administration gave a loudspeaker announcement to calm the fears of the student body and quiet the multitude of contradictory rumors swirling around the school. The announcement assured students that everyone was safe, that no one was arrested, and added that everyone should refrain from spreading rumors. The announcement was a helpful in calming immediate fears, but it was too vague for many students to tamp down on rumors. In the absence of the facts, false information about weapons, arrests, and law enforcement understandably proliferated. 

Is there a way to give students and parents enough of a narrative to establish a basic understanding while respecting the privacy of students involved? There must be a balance where the school can establish basic, anonymous details—e.g., the rumors about the incident started last night online, parents eventually reported the issue to Mr. Adipietro, etc.—without violating anyone’s privacy. 

The internal communication at Hastings High School was admirable, but it is time for the school to consider direct communication to the student body as well and to consider how slightly more detailed information may lead to a better informed student body.