Incident at Niles Schools shines light on communication problems in district

Published 9:37 am Wednesday, March 30, 2016

You’ve likely heard the saying, “no news is good news.”

In many cases this old adage is true, but when you’re a parent or concerned community member faced with a crisis situation, the less information you receive the more worried you are likely to become.

This was the case last week for countless parents of Niles students who received vague text messages and phone alerts about a “serious incident” that occurred at the high school.

The ambiguity of this message ultimately raised more questions than it answered, which led to a frenzy of alarmed community members seeking to make sense of what was happening. Rumors about the nature of the incident spread like wildfire, resulting in even more chaos and concern.

Even worse, the school district — and the Grand Rapids-based public relations firm it contracts to handle things like this — refused to provide vital information that could have put those rumors to rest.

We understand the delicacy of the situation and respect the district’s desire to respect the involved student’s privacy, but the fact of the matter is that because the incident occurred in a public place — with a number of witnesses — more than just one student was impacted.

When our news team contacted school administrators hoping to find answers for readers, we were rerouted several times and eventually redirected to the public relations firm that has no real connection to the community and the public panic this was causing. The firm again referenced a “serious incident” but refused to provide other details.

Eventually Superintendent Dan Applegate talked with a reporter, and we appreciate his cooperation, but we were still disappointed at the lack of information the district decided to provide.

Neither the firm nor the superintendent were able to answer any questions regarding the nature of the incident or when exactly the incident occurred. We were given conflicting information regarding the location of the incident (one said Niles High School, another Niles New Tech) and the number of witnesses (one said “a few” and the other said as many as 15 to 20).

By now, it is likely most residents have heard some version of what happened last Wednesday, but no facts have been confirmed by the school district.

Some parents have expressed concern over the lack of supervision that allowed this situation to occur, and several others have questioned how they are supposed to console their children when they have no point of reference other than hearsay and rumors.

These are valid questions, and the taxpaying citizens deserve answers.

In a country where mass shootings, bomb threats and a long slew of other violent acts have become everyday occurrences, and where social media spreads information (fact or fiction) like wildfire, public school systems must form better policies regarding communication throughout the districts they serve.

There is no excuse for the lack of transparency that occurred last week. Although we certainly hope no incidents like this occur in the future, we urge district leaders to err on the side of caution and develop a better system for providing necessary information to taxpayers who deserve answers.


Opinions expressed are those of the editorial board consisting of Publisher Michael Caldwell and editors Ambrosia Neldon, Craig Haupert, Ted Yoakum and Scott Novak.