School leaders responding to crises are subject to incredible scrutiny, not to mention second guessing. The most recent example is the full-blown crisis that exploded at Dalhousie University in mid-December 2014 over the misogynistic Facebook posts of the infamous “DDS 2015 Gentlemen.” That group of 13 fourth-year dentistry students, on a Facebook page established in 2011, degraded women, in post after disgusting post, including the male students’ female peers.
What began as a Dalhousie Student Discipline case grew into a monster threatening the university’s cherished reputation. Since a fateful Media Conference on December 18, 2014, the school’s handling of the scandal became the radioactive issue. Dalhousie University’s president, Richard Florizone, first proposed “Restorative Justice” as the answer, then backtracked in the face of a petition calling for expulsion signed by over 50,000 concerned citizens.
The Dental School Crisis dragged on for weeks and attracted widespread public concern. Three weeks after the initial announcement, the President announced that the 13 students would have their clinical privileges suspended. When the Restorative Justice process began to unravel, the President began to sound tougher, insisting that there would be “consequences” for the alleged miscreants. How it will end is anyone’s guess, but the issue still festers and the damage has been done.
Veteran school leaders all have “war stories” like this to tell and yet they remain silent in observing crises like this spinning out-of-control. For most battle tested leaders, the inner voice says, “There but for the grace of God.” For others, it’s just a reminder that being “tested by fire” is the rite of passage for all school leaders, at some point in their career. One of Canada’s wisest law professors, former university president Wayne MacKay, did venture some gentle early advice, tempered by his trademark sensitivity. Surviving a few crises of my own has rendered me more cerebral, less definitive, and more conflicted than usual.
At times like this, where might a school leader turn? My personal experiences, in two decades of senior education leadership roles, taught me three things — take charge, seek professional advice, and keep the lawyers at bay. Crises are extraordinary events and they call for some decisiveness as well as roll-up-the sleeves, informed, effective decision-making. What you say and do matters –and mistakes are rarely forgiven. You are also foolhardy if you simply take matters into your own hands and do not seek the advice of so-called “crisis management” professionals.
My “crisis management” confidante was Dr. Allan Bonner and he saved me from disaster more than once. After being trained by Allan in Toronto in the Spring of 1997, my eyes were opened and I was much more attuned to the potential for “incidents” to become “crises.”
“A crisis is a turning point for better or worse,” says Bonner. “A crisis is a rapidly moving and changing event that taxes your response capabilities to their limits. You will need all the assets, people and skills you have and will need to procure new assets and skills very quickly.”
“Crisis management” is critical to solving school problems, and also to protecting your most valuable asset – the institution’s reputation. If you fumble the ball, the media, board members, faculty, students and all stakeholders start to “question whether the underpinnings of ‘the system’ work. In a crisis, the system includes your approaches, policies and procedures, laws, ethics, codes of conduct and more.”
“Take the panic out of a crisis!” is one of Bonner’s favourite statements. Sexual harrassment, criminal charges, wrongful dismissal and media investigations are issues that can generate crises in schools. If you do not know what a SOCKO is, be prepared to answer the same questions over and over again. You also learn to re-gain control of the situation, buy some time, get to the bottom of the matter, and anticipate the unexpected. Most importantly, take effective action in hours to nip a crisis in the bud before it expands.
Crises are, by their very nature, challenging to resolve, but they can be made worse by leadership lapses and mis-steps. While crises do not repeat themselves, you can learn from others tested by fire and those who make a profession of extricating school leaders out of periodic hot water. Just when you think you have it mastered, another crocodile in the education lagoon takes a snap at you.
Why do School Incidents become full-blown crises? What can be learned from the handling of the Dalhousie Dental School crisis, the Saint Mary’s University ‘Rape Chant’ scandal, and the fumbling of the Rehteah Parsons case? What’s the best place to turn for guidance — your personal conscience, past experience, or the wisdom of others?