On the April day when the reassignment of Washburn High School Principal Carol Markham-Cousins was announced, Minnesota’s school public-relations people were gathered in a sunny banquet facility just east of Lake Calhoun.
The Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) contingent was notably thin, its communications staffers having drawn straws to see who would go and who would stay back at HQ. Their colleagues had nothing but sympathy.
The controversies leading up to the painful reassignment had played out in social media, turning the school’s community into the kind of viral swamp known to swallow even the best communicators whole.
“I can’t imagine having to manage this in public,” said one superintendent present.
On leave after one day
On Tuesday, MPS placed the man hired last week to replace Markham-Cousins on administrative leave. Patrick Exner had been principal of Washburn for exactly one day. On Wednesday, the Star Tribune broke news that state and district administrators were in receipt of an anonymous e-mail accusing Exner of tampering with standardized tests in his last post.
The district quickly put a statement up promising an investigation, while brass at the Minnesota Department of Education were forthcoming with information about their research into the situation.
And perhaps because students have yet to return to Washburn, the Internets were not nearly as inflamed as they have been. Still, say social media experts, it’s time for Twin Cities school leaders to learn to navigate the new grapevine.
In the first of the high-profile controversies that preceded Markham-Cousins’ reassignment, community ire was piqued by her handling of an episode in which some students hung a brown-skinned doll from a noose in a stairwell. Students posted pictures of the doll to Facebook. She came under fire for not communicating with parents about it right away and for insisting that student privacy issues precluded her from saying what she had done in response.
In the second, students and parents protested her handling of a controversy involving the school’s athletic director. When rumors began to circulate that Dan Pratt was to be fired by Markham-Cousins, students organized a walkout on Twitter.
Hashtags, and an app in every pocket
The hyper-local news site Patch curated the digital missives into a Storify, complete with photos of the teen protesters being shut out of school. The hashtags: #savepratt and #washburnproblems.
Other, past #washburnproblems include student quips about different racial groups, dope smoking in restrooms and whether students should stop trying to act “hella hood” when the school is “just as preppy as SW.”
A few short years ago, controversies involving students and staff typically were met with the explanation that because privacy rules limited what could be said, no comment would be forthcoming. Today, with an app in every pocket, administrators are lucky if they can keep up with the rumor mill, much less quiet it.
“I’m sure it’s a very unfamiliar feeling, having to deal with social media where you have no control,” said Chris Duffy, a social media strategist with Goff Public. “How do you manage? We always tell our clients it’s more important than ever to have a plan in place.”
And it has to be a lot more sophisticated than checking Facebook, he said. In part because so many of their parents now belong to Facebook, young people are flocking to other media like Twitter and Instagram.
“Facebook is a little more contained,” Duffy said. “You have the ability to accept or reject people or block them.”
Twitter is also searchable, he noted, which means anyone can see anything been said about a school or educator: “The fact that young people are moving to it makes it very dangerous to school districts.”
As much as they can, districts need to adopt an “ethic of transparency.” “People expect to hear from you, but they don’t expect to hear everything,” said Duffy. “You want to give whatever information you can at the time that doesn’t jeopardize the investigation or situation.”
The investigation into allegations against Exner should provide opportunities to try to own the conversation. The anonymous e-mail sent to state and district officials Monday accused him of changing answers on four reading tests he proctored as associate director of the Hopkins charter school Ubah Medical Academy.
In June, the school told state officials that there was a breach of test security protocol and the Department of Education invalidated four exams. There were no claims of misconduct.
“According to a member of the Ubah school board, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Exner was put on leave on June 11,” the Star Tribune reported. “The board member said that the testing issue was brought to Ubah’s board July 2 by Musa Farah, who spoke of reprimanding Exner, but that Exner was back in school the following week.”