For how not to handle a situation of serious concern, look no farther than Safford Unified School District.
We never thought we would write those words — SUSD has been consistently one of the most open and accessible districts the public and we deal with. Superintendent Ken Van Winkle and his staff have, in the past, worked hard to stay ahead of any issues that parents would be concerned about, effectively communicating what the district is doing.
Plus, the district has a great working relationship with Safford Police Department, ensuring that investigations into alleged incidents are conducted professionally and thoroughly, with no hint of impropriety and cover-up.
That is . . . until this most recent incident involving the football team.
An incident of alleged hazing occurred during a camp for the football team in the Payson area two weeks ago. Video of the incident shows a player being repeatedly punched by multiple players and a number of players laughing.
The district issued a statement that said (we’re paraphrasing) the district is cooperating with Pinetop Police in its investigation of the incident and the district cannot comment while the investigation is ongoing.
The position of the district is reasonable. Any public comment by a person in authority could alter how people conduct themselves with investigators, thus resulting in a less than accurate conclusion.
Our contention about “how not to handle” things comes into play with interaction between the district and parents and taxpayers.
The district was made aware of the video Thursday, June 6. At a Thursday, June 13, meeting of district officials, parents and players (press was not allowed to attend), parents were told that district officials were not in town on June 6, so district response actually began Monday, June 10.
That’s far too long to wait if hazing and/or assault did occur.
The first communication between the district and parents of players took place Thursday, June 13, when parents and players were asked to attend the meeting — one week after the district was made aware of the incident.
Meanwhile, parents discovered that something untoward might have occurred when 12 News out of Phoenix reported the story Wednesday, June 12, posting the story to its Facebook page. That meant parents of players were left in the dark for an additional 24 hours.
Meanwhile, Safford taxpayers were also left to wonder what, if anything, occurred, because while the district communicated its statement to Phoenix, it declined to do so locally. Multiple calls, texts and e-mails to the district by the Courier went unanswered until the director of instructional services finally texted to the Courier on Thursday, June 12, the same statement issued to 12 News.
As we said, our issue is not the statement and lack of additional comments by the district while the investigation is ongoing — that position is the correct one to take while police do their job. Rather it’s the timeline on communication with the district’s constituents.
The district should have a chain of command established to deal with emergencies when officials are away — when Safford’s city manager is away, an interim manager is assigned (e.g., the police chief, the planning director, etc.); when the governor is out of the state, the secretary of state temporarily assumes the governor’s duties until his return. Being notified on a Thursday and not taking action until Monday should not be acceptable when a serious situation occurs.
When notified of an issue surrounding any extracurricular activity — especially one in which assault is alleged — parents of participating students should be notified immediately that an investigation is taking place, as soon as the district becomes aware. Parents should not have to learn that their child might have been in an unsafe environment from postings on social media.
Safford taxpayers, who support the district, should not have heard about an issue surrounding one of its schools from a social media posting by a Phoenix outlet, a week after the district became aware. Again, the simple statement that an investigation is ongoing should have been issued locally immediately to let taxpayers know their district is proceeding in the correct manner.
We hope this communication flub is a one and done for the Safford Unified School District.