Since splashing down in a small college town in our passport country after a 22-year stint on three continents, my wife and I have been challenged by our new neighbors to effectively describe the life that we led for more than two decades. “Picture, if you will, a school of 2600 students with 71 different nationalities half a world away in one of the largest cities on the planet, housed within the most populous majority-Muslim country…, all of which you’ve maybe never heard of before.” Most folks glaze over about half way into that sentence. It doesn’t compute, as they have no reference point for a school of that scale in a distant land, much less one with such cultural diversity and with an annual churn rate of about 25-30%. Here in the US, immigrants are officially labelled as “aliens.” Despite our citizenship, “hidden alien” often feels like an apt moniker for us, particularly when we seek to talk about our overseas lives generally, much less when we try to describe the extended crisis in Jakarta in particular.
Tragedies of various sorts both fascinate and repel. The constant stream of international headline “news” is chock full of sordid scoops that range from the tabloid to the gruesome. Gory details sell, it seems, and the appetite for such reports seems rather constant...as long as we can keep such tidings at arms length. However, when injustice and pain hits close to home, we all suffer in ways for which the constant flow of hyped up vitriol does not prepare us. Pink Floyd’s diagnosis of “comfortably numb” can suddenly shed in favor of painfully aware. Ignorance is indeed not bliss.
In graduate school, we learned that job #1 for school administrators and faculty is safety. Parents entrust us with their most prized possessions, and we need to honor and earn that trust by taking extraordinary measures to help children avoid harm, while giving them enough space to learn actively and explore boundaries. The same need for caretaking is true for our schools communities as a whole. In 2013-14, we were redrafting our child safeguarding policies and procedures, revising based on recent research among international and domestically-based educators around the world. We were about to launch a new training program for all adults who had direct contact with our students, when I received a call that I will never forget.
One of our elementary administrators had been phoned by an angry parent who alleged that her child had been sexually abused on our campus during a school day. Quickly morphing into one of the largest crises in the history of international schools, this sordid matter is still not totally resolved four years later. The allegations turned out to be false. However, despite countless legal proceedings, mobilization of the international school community, and massive diplomatic efforts, injustice still reins to this day. Amidst the ongoing suffering and solidarity of countless community members, a strange truth has emerged: the school has arguably thrived. Schools can be remarkably resilient and tremendous learning can take place in the midst of serious tribulations...and given similar situations, schools can splinter and even disintegrate. With advice from many true experts in the field of crisis management, and learning from many mistakes and some successes along the way, following are a few possible keys to attaining some positive outcomes during the worst of times.
Just the Facts: Educators are not trained detectives, though they are sometimes called upon to be the lead investigators in complicated incidents on their campuses. Resist the temptation to be Sherlock Holmes or Precious Ramotswe and seek an outside expert for high stakes matters. Internationally known and qualified third parties can help schools to learn the facts, diagnose and define the severity of the crisis, and advise on next steps. Believe me, it is worth the investment. Since identifying such professionals can take time, identify your crisis diagnostician beforehand and have the contact information handy.
PR/Legal Bomb Squad: Likewise, in the age of social media when news can spread faster than the speed of light, having a trusted and competent public relations firm identified, vetted, and at the ready is crucial. They will be necessary for speedy diagnosis and countermeasures. The same is true for legal firms and a trusted lawyer, preferably with litigation experience with school matters.
Map the Crisis: with the help of the above professionals and in collaboration with both your governing body and your leadership team, make a realistic map of the crisis that you face and map various scenarios. Knowing what the worst, best, and mostly likely outcomes can be will help the crisis team to prepare and make decisions along the way. Oh, and make sure you have a crisis team that meets enough to clarify roles before a crisis hits.
Communicate: Especially at beginning stages of crises, as openly as possible, keep your faculty, parents, students, and key community stakeholders in the know. While email and press releases are strategic and helpful along the way, people tend to be comforted by physical presence and frank assessments of the crisis situation, as much as possible. Rumors can fan the flames of hysteria, and giving honest assessments in person, even of bad news, tends to inspire trust.
Community is the key: As implied above, communities are sorely tested by crises large and small. As with pestilence or disease, the strong and healthy often have the best chances of survival. Not surprisingly, the best preparation for schools is to proactively strive for communal health--organizational clarity, a strong sense of school identity and purpose, open lines of communication, and inclusion of disparate views in decision-making processes. To strengthen the latter in the year prior to the crisis we had formally expanded our leadership team to include Indonesian managers who had never been invited to a schoolwide leadership table before. We shared the vision, dreams, and priorities with them, gathered their input from their unique cultural and personal vantage points, and broke bread together. In so doing, trust was strengthened, the multicultural team was widened, and communication channels were clarified. This all turned out to be vital. Because Jakarta Intercultural School (JIS) enjoyed such organizational health and clarity prior to the onset of the crisis, it survived and even thrived.
Weekly vigils continue at JIS, as the protracted crisis lingers on. Our falsely-accused friends and colleagues are still behind bars, yet hope springs eternal that this will mercifully end soon. Meanwhile, the school continues to flourish, even with the lingering burden of this injustice. Amidst this tragic circumstance, both those still in Jakarta and those of us who have physically moved on know that we have learned much, and we only hope that our hard-won lessons will help other school communities to weather the unexpected storms on their respective horizons and emerge not only intact, but stronger when the skies eventually clear.