Unfounded rumors and hoaxes have become a pervasive problem for schools as they navigate rising political tensions surrounding education.
Most recently, politicians across the country repeated a hoax claiming schools provided litter boxes for students who dress up as cats and are part of the furries subculture, a group of people with an interest in anthropomorphic animals. That hoax was unfairly linked to LGBTQ students.
The litter box hoax is bizarre in nature, but other unfounded rumors, such as claims that schools are teaching critical race theory, the academic concept that says race is a social construct embedded into legal systems and policies, have had very disruptive effects on schools. For example, at least 17 states have passed laws limiting how teachers can discuss race, gender, and sexuality, fueled in part by false rumors about the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 schools.
“The misinformation and disinformation has certainly shined a light on the importance of school communications and the role of the school communicator in helping not just schools but school communities navigate this new landscape of media and information,” said Cathy Kedjidjian, the president of the National School Public Relations Association.
Hoaxes and unfounded rumors are frustrating, demeaning, and damaging for educators and the students they serve, and they’ve become an inevitable part of the political climate surrounding schools. But there are some key steps principals and district leaders can take to minimize their impact.
1. Internal communication comes first
One of the most important steps a school district can take to minimize the impact of hoaxes and unfounded rumors is to start with staff.
Teachers are often parents’ most trusted source for information, Kedjidjian said, so leaving them in the dark only adds to the confusion and ultimately hurts staff morale.
Kedjidjian suggests districts develop a line of communication that includes sharing important information with teachers and principals first. That can include talking points, answers to frequently asked questions, or even public statements prior to their release by district officials, she said.
“That gives an opportunity for teachers to prepare with any questions that come to them,” Kedjidjian said. “Or if they’re sending out a message through their teacher newsletter, there can be consistent and clear messaging, and that will resonate more than any individual message that will come through the superintendent.”
2. Develop strong relationships with community partners
For any communications crisis, it’s important for districts to be connected to local law enforcement and health agencies.
When it comes to hoaxes related to health or safety, joint communications from both the school district and law enforcement can help establish trust within schools.
“Go to the source,” Kedjidjian said. “Schools are not law enforcement. Schools are not public-health agencies, but we do have strong partnerships with those experts and rely on those experts.”
3. Stick to the facts
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the emotional toll hoaxes take on school leaders. Terry Brenner, the superintendent of the Grand Forks district in North Dakota, described the litter box rumor as “offensive” to the district, staff, and students.
But at the same time, it’s important to not feed into the tense emotions surrounding unfounded rumors and hoaxes and, instead, stick to the factual information, Kedjidjian said.
“Communication should always start with facts and be as short as possible but as thorough as possible,” she said.
Brenner and the Grand Forks communications coordinator, Tracy Jentz, did just that when addressing the litter box rumor in their district. Jentz, who is also the north-central region vice president for NSPRA, created a “Rumor Has It” page on the district’s website, including information about the litter box hoax as well as other unfounded rumors.
“If we’re really in the kid business and protecting kids and creating academic and social-emotionally positive trajectories for them, we need to knock that noise down,” Brenner said.
4. React quickly but not until you have all the information
While it’s important to acknowledge hoaxes and unfounded rumors as they spread on social media or through other channels, school leaders should be careful to not react with haste.
Districts should try and gather as much information as they can about hoaxes or false rumors before sending out statements, Kedjidjian said. Sometimes, that might mean publishing a holding statement that informs the community that school leaders are looking into an issue but don’t yet have all the information.
“Holding statements are really important, and they allow school districts to take that breath and take that time to ensure that they are providing facts and not responding too quickly,” she said.
Tim Powers, the headmaster of Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H., said he took a moment to vent and get out his frustration about the litter box hoax before crafting a response to it. Don Bolduc, then the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, said during a campaign event in late October that the school was offering litter boxes to students. (Bolduc lost the election.)
“With things like this, you get ahead of the messaging as much as you can,” Powers said. “Once it gets legs and starts rolling, then you’re playing catch up and you’re behind the avalanche. It’s going and it’s a lot harder to get the message out about what actually happened, and people have already decided based on what they’ve heard.”
5. Ensure communications are widespread and accessible
Kedjidjian recommends that schools avoid only communicating through one channel, such as the school website or a social media page.
Instead, communication should be sent to everyone in the school community through all channels possible, including all social media pages, emails, and text messages. In doing so, schools can ensure that everyone gets the information regardless of how they access it.
“We know that text messages are read more and more, especially with low-income families,” Kedjidjian said. “They may not have easy access to email, but they have access to text messaging.”
It’s also important that schools ensure all communications are translated for non-English-speaking families, Kedjidjian said.
6. Know your community
It’s important for school and district leaders to understand their community when responding to unfounded rumors and hoaxes.
That means developing strong internal relationships as well as relationships with school leaders in nearby districts and schools. Powers said his connections to school leaders helped him vent about the rumor and gain perspective immediately after hearing about it.
“Have someone you can call, somebody you can bounce things off with, whether it’s internally or some peer that’s in a neighboring town or district that you can talk to and pick up the phone and be like, ‘Hey, this is the rumor that was just said. I can’t believe it,’” Powers said. “You vent a little bit and you get a little perspective and then you come back and work internally on it.”
With the proper response, rumors and hoaxes can also be a way to build a stronger school community, Kedjidjian said.
“It can bring your community together,” Kedjidjian said. “If you have those trusted lines of communication, if you respond quickly, clearly, and factually to your community, the response can elevate, ‘Oh, that’s a rumor,’ and turn the conversation to, ‘Wow, it’s great that we get the information we need from our school district.’”