Handling social media crises

With social media, misinformation travels at the speed of light, according to officials at Nebraska’s Lincoln Public Schools. In a Monday session entitled, “Purple Penguins and Icebergs: The Slippery Slope of Social Media, Trolls, and Going Viral” at NSBA’s Annual Conference in Boston, they explained how their district became the focus of unwanted national publicity regarding accommodation of a transgender student.

It all began when a middle school teacher asked for training regarding transgender students because a student had identified as transgender. A trainer subsequently advised teachers that one thing they can do is avoid referring to “boys and girls.” Instead, they were told, just call them students. Or maybe refer to them by the school mascot, which in this case happened to be the Purple Penguins.

What happened next is a teacher who didn’t like this advice shared training materials with a parent, who shared it with a conservative talk show host. Shortly thereafter the conservative magazine National Review ran a story saying – inaccurately – “A Nebraska school district has instructed its teachers to stop referring to students by ‘gendered expressions’ such as ‘boys and girls,’ and use ‘gender inclusive’ ones such as ‘purple penguins’ instead.”

“We made national news for something that didn’t happen in our schools,” said board member Don Mayhew. The district never banned the term “boys and girls.”

After the district held a press conference, the situation morphed into a legal debate, said Superintendent Stephen Joel. The district said it had a legal obligation to accommodate transgender students and cited documents from the federal Office of Civil Rights (OCR).

A group called Alliance for Defending Freedom countered that OCR’s opinion does not have the force of law, and claimed that no accommodation is required if it violates the rights of others.

Meanwhile, all seven members of the school board received death threats over the issue of whether the district should or should not accommodate transgender students. Joel got one that said, “Do America a favor. Commit suicide now.”

Joel said he and members of the board viewed the controversy as an opportunity to articulate that the fundamental idea that underpins the work of school boards and school administrators is that all students are entitled to a public education, and that “all means all.”

He added: “We get very few opportunities to stand up for what we believe in. Public education is about serving all kids.”

Lincoln board member Lanny Boswell gave advice on how to deal with misinformation about your school district, especially when it appears on social media. When misinformation spreads though virtually any medium, it’s generally a good idea to use district communications, including social media, to get factual information out immediately, he said. However, this requires judgment. Sometimes a district’s attention to an off-the-wall tweet or blog post can magnify the audience.

Also, “don’t try to engage in debates you can’t win” he advised. “There are a lot of people who have made up their mind. It’s not our job to change their mind. It’s our job to make sure they have accurate information.”

Eric Randall

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