Schools must prepare for crisis because this is how not to handle one

For the second time in the last six months in Western New York, girls teams of school athletes are embroiled in a racial controversy. Seems some middle school girls are becoming the knucklehead equivalent of boys. Equality, indeed.

Whether or not immature teen-age athletes used the N-word or other slurs in a lacrosse game between Clarence and cross-county rival Sweet Home last week is not the issue at hand. Everyone should abhor such behavior, there should be serious consequences and let’s hope these impressionable young people, on both sides — and their parents — can gain some historical perspective and sensitivity training.

Clarence is one of the wealthiest suburbs of Buffalo. Sweet Home draws from mostly middle class areas of Tonawanda and Amherst. Clarence residents’ media income is $83,000, compared to $55,000 statewide. The town is 98.6 percent white; and African-Americans, at .015 percent, are the third-largest minority in the remaining 1.4 percent.

Clarence Superintendent Geoffrey M. Hicks headed down the wrong path in this crisis, and took each wrong fork as well.

He first suspended the whole team for four games — one-third of the season. This at first seems reasonable, especially when youngsters are learning that you win and lose as a team. However, some parents, understandably, believe that their child did not use the slurs — which could be a reasonable conclusion — and therefore should not be punished.

But then the plot thickened — as is usually the case with teenagers. Clarence players and parents say the Sweet Home girls, losing by a lopsided score, started the name calling.

Some of the alleged insults included “rich white bitches,” “white trash” and “white bimbos,” according to parents.

Some parents blamed Hicks for rushing to judgment after three Sweet Home girls reported the game-time slurs, perhaps as retorts, though that doesn’t make them right. The media smelled blood in the water and the crisis ballooned.

Schools and school districts need to effectively prepare for events such as these, because they happen all the time. This is prom time. Last fall it was a bullied suicide that showed a different school district was unprepared for crisis. Tomorrow there will be another.

Here’s what Hicks, who ironically was Sweet Home superintendent until 2010, did wrong, and it’s still early yet in the crisis. First, the parents probably have a point. Investigate and gather facts. Then be the first to deliver the bad news, internally and externally, don’t let the media do it.


Hicks, who didn’t meet with reporters after Tuesday’s meeting, also did not return several telephone calls to his home and office late Tuesday. The parent said Hicks assured those at the meeting he would issue a statement on behalf of the school sometime today.

“Our reputation is tarnished, and we are sad,” the parent said.

The media were denied entrance to Tuesday’s meeting. Clarence Middle School Assistant Principal Robert Michel guarded the door to the session and asked the media to leave school grounds.

Really? In a 10-day-old crisis you don’t comment? No comment or refusing to comment should never be an option. Say something. Why? Because you project guilt, arrogance and ignorance if you do not. You project not having control of the crisis or your own responsibilities. And, you let your critics have a free shot at your organization and you.

Sending a middle-school administrator out to turn away the media? This isn’t the Nixon White House. Or shouldn’t be.

Prepare for a crisis, with advanced planning and crisis training. Investigate and gather all the facts. Deliver bad news first. No comment is not an option. Do not alienate or fight the media. A crisis is an opportunity for transformative leadership, either way.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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