For three days in late April, a spring tornado outbreak terrorized parts of the Southeast and Midwest, leaving catastrophic damage across several states, especially Alabama, where a deadly twister leveled much of the city of Tuscaloosa. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would later confirm that April 27, 2011, was the most prolific and destructive tornado day in United States history.
Dr. Jeff Mitchell, Head of Tuscaloosa Academy
, talks to Between the Lines
about making critical decisions in an emergency, restoring normalcy and finding a teaching moment in a community disaster.
As a head of school, what was your first thought when you discovered that your school might be in critical danger?
“Truly, it was not until well after the tornado went through that I, and most people in Tuscaloosa, got word of the extent of the devastation. The storm wrecked havoc with the communication systems. It was probably the next day that the enormity of the situation became apparent, and I remember thinking that it was just dumb luck that Tuscaloosa Academy was spared and my own house was not in the storm’s path. I also remember thinking, it was real good call to dismiss school early that day.
Sometimes we overreact in the situations, but not this time.”
Did you have a crisis communications plan in place to keep everyone well-informed before the tornado devastation? Will you revise your crisis communications plan now?
We had a pretty good plan in place. I’ve always approached crisis communication—up to this point, it was in theory only—with the KISS principle. For example, limiting the number of people who make critical decisions is vital. Also, there should only be one official communications feed. My thoughts were always that, with a large-scale crisis, it’s impossible to predict the nuances of the response. I felt it was best to establish a basic communications goal, like “Tuscaloosa Academy feels an obligation to respond to the greater Tuscaloosa community in every way feasible and with every constituent that’s appropriate,” and after that we were free to make the decisions we needed to make in a very fluid situation.
As luck would have it, we just purchased access to an emergency calling system about two months ago, and the use of this system greatly enhanced our communication efforts. I might be saying something different if we hadn’t made this investment.
What's been the biggest challenge in restoring normalcy to your school?
Fluidity. Tuscaloosa Academy took the approach of restoring normalcy by recognizing the need around us and responding within our community where we could. By shortening our period length, we were able to free-up the entire student body from grades 5-12 for age-appropriate service work from 1:30-3:00 pm every afternoon.
As you can imagine, the needs associated with a crisis of this magnitude change daily. I don’t think you should have the attitude that you will (or even should) restore normalcy. You respond in the most appropriate and positive way you can.
For example, the public school system here has suffered tremendous damage and loss. Of the 18,000 students who attend Tuscaloosa County Schools, approximately 1,100 lived directly in the path of the tornado. Several schools were also impacted. Holt Elementary was partially destroyed and is no longer a functioning school. The entire roof must be replaced along with many of the window and door units. Once the building is ready for occupancy, funds will be needed to replace capital items such as computers and furniture. We’re partnering with SAIS to help raise awareness and channel relief to these schools.
This is the ultimate “teachable moment” of my career.
Dr. Jeff Mitchell is a graduate of the SAIS Institute for New Heads
and is entering his third year as head at Tuscaloosa Academy.
SAIS provides its membership with an online resource to connect them with other independent school leaders. Log on to SAISconnect.sais.org
now to discuss crisis management, disaster preparedness and other challenges with independent school colleagues from across the SAIS region.
SAISand Tuscaloosa Academy will gladly facilitate the direction of funds and efforts to serve students in the Tuscaloosa area. If your school is involved in a relief effort and would like to donate to this disaster relief fund, you may send checks to SAIS, Disaster Relief Fund, PO Box 369, Alpharetta GA 30009
. You may also donate securely online here.