EDITORIAL: SCHOOL DISTRICT HANDLED GORNALL SITUATION AS WELL AS IT POSSIBLY COULD
Published: March 17, 2015
It likely ranks as one of a public school superintendent's worst nightmares.
A well-liked teacher who had violated the basic trust of students and parents. And the details in this case were particularly horrifying -- he secretly videotaped kindergarten students using the classroom bathroom.
How do you communicate the terrible news with parents and the community at large? And how do you prevent it from becoming a sensationalized media circus?
That's the situation that Loudonville-Perrysville Schools superintendent John Miller found himself in two weeks ago when law enforcement officials informed him of the allegations and evidence again former McMullen Elementary School teacher Elliot T. Gornall. Gornall had caused a previous stir in November when he was arrested on drug possession charges and almost immediately resigned his position. The latest revelations stemmed from that investigation.
As detailed in today's front-page story, Miller and district lawyers immediately sought professional guidance.
The district contracted with Communications Counsel Inc., a well-regarded, high-profile Columbus public relations firm whose many specialities include crisis communications.
According to Mark Weaver, head of Communications Counsel, Miller persuaded him to accept a $5,000 flat fee -- compared to the firm's normal $495 per hour fee, which would likely have been in the $20,000 range for the services provided.
It was $5,000 wisely invested.
This situation had the making of a national media feeding-frenzy in the 24-hour news cycle environment. The glare and attention on our community could have lasted for weeks if the salacious details of the case leaked out bit-by-bit over time. That would have only extended the pain felt by many across the community.
Instead, Weaver and his colleagues urged transparency, encouraging law enforcement and school officials to get out as much information about the situation to the public as possible -- including setting up a comprehensive website -- lpschoolfacts.org.
On Saturday March 7, Weaver and his colleagues carefully choreographed a series of meetings, news releases and finally a news conference. First were two private meetings with kindergarten parents, followed by a detailed news release and then a news conference that included law enforcement and school officials. Communication Counsel reps had proactively notified media outlets between Cleveland and Columbus on Friday that a significant topic was going to be discussed, and followed up Saturday morning what the topic was in regards to. The presentation at the news conference was detailed as were answers to questions.
As Weaver said: "We fed the beast the full buffet." And scheduling the news conference on a weekend afternoon, likely helped minimized the frenzy. Yes, the story got play from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., to New York City and even in London. But it could have been far worse, stretching out for days.
Even journalists, who often are skeptical of public relation types, were impressed by their efforts.
School officials and local law enforcement officials have handled a very difficult situation as well as could be expected. McMullen principal Annette Gorrell deserves special mention because she was forced to step in as the district's main spokesman when Miller was sidelined at the last minute by a medical emergency. She performed well under fire as her hurt and compassion for the students and the parents came through loud and clear.
This story likely will heat up again as Gornall's case moves through the justice system.
But due to the proactive efforts of local officials in dealing with the initial onslaught, the community can begin the healing process a bit sooner without the constant glare of outsiders.