September/October 2020

Practical PR
How Will Your District Be Caught on Tape?

 By Jill S. Browning
When it comes to sharing content, communications people like to say that “video is king.” Whenever we can “show, not tell,” we improve the chances that our message will be received as intended — and videos always provide a show.

Knowing its effectiveness, Community High SD 99 in Downers Grove uses video in a variety of ways throughout the school year. Weekly video announcements, with colorful and campy segments, entertain and engage high school students. Principals share school news and happenings to families via monthly video updates. An “Opening Doors” video series spotlights teachers and students in action, and each hyper-focused segment shows what happens inside the classrooms. The district also videotapes every bi-monthly board of education meeting, and have live-streamed each one since the start of the pandemic crisis. 

We’ve found that publishing videos and doing so on a regular schedule have increased transparency and understanding and won the trust of the school community. 

While video can be a powerfully positive tool, the opposite can be true. Just one amateur-shot, a seconds-long snippet can unravel years of positive work. In January 2019, while waiting in a classroom at another school for an extracurricular event to start, one of our students, wearing a school-issued uniform, wrote the “n” word across a whiteboard. Another student videotaped it, giggling. The grainy video spread like wildfire across Snapchat, Twitter, and Facebook, and people chimed in from near and far.

The comments on social media came swiftly and were deservedly negative. Media descended, demanding information and answers about what they deemed the “school slur scandal.” People clamored to know how those involved would be punished. Many of the comments were hateful and threatening — and expanded far beyond the community. We were concerned for the safety of those involved. 

The district’s response was clear and repeated: Racism has no place in our schools. We were able to point to examples of things the district was already doing and the structures already in place. For example, we have several equity committees, dedicated diversity advisors to respond to concerns, and mandated training for all staff to ensure the district fosters an equitable environment. ISBE commended the District 99 Equity Team with an Award of Meritorious Service this year.

Supporting these efforts through that crisis, and all along, has been the board of education. Our school board members have long been advocates of equity and have supported the district’s work to advance an equitable environment. The board has video documentation of these efforts, having taped its meetings since December 2011. The most recent evidence was earlier this year when the board welcomed student equity leaders into the meeting chambers. The students shared the work they’re doing to lead conversations about race, culture, and equity in order to foster a positive school climate. The students were proud to present their work. How do we know? We caught the students’ expressions on tape.

As a community leader, you are a powerful force in leading the way to create a more equitable and inclusive world. To broaden its reach and perspective, your Board of Education might consider:

  • Broadcasting school board meetings, if the district does not already do so. Videos make meetings accessible to everyone, which establishes a foundation of transparency and trust and provides a public record of your positive work.
  • Installing student representatives on the board. Principals appoint a student board representative to serve alongside adult board members. The students don’t participate in closed sessions, and they don’t vote, but they provide fresh voices about school climate during discussions.
  • Including students in board meetings. Every month the agenda reserves space for a student spotlight. These presentations by students about events and activities at the schools directly connect the board to student life.

How the District 99 Board Supports Equity
The District 99 Board of Education advocates for equity and supports the district’s work to advance an equitable environment. For example, throughout the years the board has supported:

  • Approving the district’s annual district goals, which include equity and inclusion programs.
  • Adopting new and detailed policies about expectations for behavior, as well as extensive protective measures to ensure everyone’s safety. 
  • Expanding academic horizons by supporting curriculum changes beyond white and non-Western history to tell the stories and share the voices of those from marginalized groups. 
  • Transforming hiring practices to emphasize recruiting and hiring staff with diverse identities. 

As we know, good work can unravel. That happened on May 25, 2020. The most poignant, disastrous and racist video we’ve ever seen, and one we will never forget, is the one that shows George Floyd being murdered.
District 99 quickly issued a collage of video messages from teachers and staff directed to our Black students, to show we care about them and were thinking about them. Was it enough? No. But it’s something. It’s a start.

From your position of influence, how will you combat racism? How will you respond to racist videos? Does your district have an actionable plan for promoting equity and inclusion for students and staff? What actions can you take to demonstrate sympathy, empathy, care, stance against injustice, and opposition to racism? 

We all need to challenge ourselves to promote hope — and to ensure that ultimately it’s not a video that is king, but kindness.

Jill S. Browning, APR, is director of communications for Community High SD 99 in Downers Grove.