LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County school district officials were caught flat-footed by the flood of social media chatter — much of it unsubstantiated rumor — that came in the aftermath of a Fivay High School student's suicide in December.
They simply were not well versed in the world of Twitter, Facebook and other sites where students and parents chatted.
"I don't know if we could have stopped all of it," said Fivay High principal Angie Stone, who fielded angry parent calls and emails as well as several media inquiries as the chatter snowballed. "But we could have had direct access to post what was really going on. We could have definitely managed it better."
In the weeks since, the district has taken steps to ensure that leaders have training in and access to online avenues for reaching out. One of the first assignments for incoming communications director Linda Cobbe will be to further prepare employees to use social media.
"It needs to be pervasive," said assistant superintendent Amelia Van Name Larson, herself an active tweeter. "We want to have a proactive system. … We live in the 21st century, and that is how people communicate. You have to send the right message out. How could we not do it?"
The effort started as a way to provide information from the district's point of view. The student services department, for instance, launched a Twitter feed shortly after the suicide occurred and began offering advice on how to counsel children and potential warning signs.
More than that, though, the schools looked to find ways to promote things happening in the classrooms, as well as events and activities taking place on campus.
Learning community executive director David Scanga started learning how to use Twitter in the past few days. He expects to use his smart phone to take pictures of the good teaching and learning techniques he sees when visiting schools, and then sharing them with his followers.
"It's a good way to capture and share and celebrate what students are doing in our county schools," Scanga said.
Some schools have been using these vehicles to reach parents for several years. They're serving as models for the others that are not as far along.
Gulfside Elementary principal Chris Clayton launched a school Facebook page in 2010 — the district's first such page — and attached it to a Twitter feed soon afterward. He's got more than 600 people following the school on Facebook, and another 120 on Twitter.
"I wanted to do it to strengthen parent involvement," Clayton explained. "I had been making weekly School Connect calls, and went one step further with Facebook."
He said the school has received positive feedback not only from parents, but also from extended family members who wanted to connect with Gulfside and see what it is doing. Clayton does all the posting from home. It doesn't take much time, he said, and the effort is worth it.
Wiregrass Ranch High also has taken several steps to reach out to parents with school information, messages and alerts.
Students helped gather email addresses and cell phone numbers during registration days, and the school uses those to send text messages and emails in addition to the usual home phone messages, which assistant principal Robyn White said many parents never received.
"We are just looking for a variety of ways to get out to students and parents," White explained. "If a parent isn't being reached, it's because we have no contact information for them or we entered a wrong number."
The school has so many blogs, websites and other technology venues that it didn't start up on Twitter and Facebook until only recently.
The effort remains one-way, even though everyone remains aware that some of the things they might want to know about and deal with — such as rumors or bullying — are happening on student sites.
White said she relies on students and teachers to let the administration know if there's something out there that demands a response. That's how Stone learned of the comments about Fivay after the student suicide.
Van Name Larson said she expects to create advisory groups of students and teachers to learn more about how the district can best deal with their needs and concerns.
"The students are going to have to be involved," she said. "We're going to have to listen to the kids, too."
All this is not without risk. Already, Stone said, Fivay had to ask Facebook to delete a "pretty damaging" page that pretended to be the school's official site.
Now she is intent on making sure the school takes the lead in keeping the public properly informed.
"Our tech specialist is very good at social media," she said. "The rest of us are learning."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.