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Psst. Did You Hear the One About...?

How you can use the web to prevent rumors from spreading.

By Matt Bolch | September 2006
Jose Luis Pelaez/Photodisc Red (RF)/Getty Images
Jose Luis Pelaez/Photodisc Red (RF)/Getty Images

Everybody loves a secret, even if it isn’t true. That can be a huge problem for administrators as those “secrets” travel beyond the school and into the community. To respond to rumors just as quickly as they circulate, some districts have turned to the web.

Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, the third largest district in Texas, with 92,000 students, received a flurry of phone calls to its district office last year after a radio call-in program misidentified the policies of another Houston-area district as Cypress-Fairbanks’s. In the aftermath of the confusion, the district created a “Fact or Fiction” part of its web site (www.cfisd.net) to either verify or disprove information. Overall, the web site records 4 million hits a month, and any topic that could inspire calls from parents becomes fodder for “Fact or Fiction.”

Any district considering bond referendums knows that rumors fly when taxpayer dollars are at stake. So after a successful referendum passed in 2004, Clear Creek (TX) Independent School District (www.ccisd.net) got the idea for “Rumor Watch.” That’s where community members can anonymously post questions, ranging from inclement-weather closings to whether a high school will have a soccer team. Karen Permetti, director of public information at the fast-growing 35,500-student district, sends a personal response to each query. Questions contain the date they were posted so users know the content is fresh, and old posts disappear in about 30 days. Clear Creek’s web site was honored with an Emmy last year among Texas media.

“When the feature first started, I was getting 20 questions a day, which took a good half of my day for the first few months,” Permetti says. Not only did she need to get accustomed to the technology, but she also had to grow comfortable with the volume of e-mails and with the thoroughness of her responses. Now, she says, she takes about 30 minutes a day to write and send her replies, most within 48 hours.District staff also use “Rumor Watch” to make inquiries, and Permetti estimates that that volume makes up 20 percent of total questions. If certain questions appear repeatedly, the district may be prompted to draft a specialized response. For example, after the district received numerous inquiries about a new high school, the principal sent a letter to students and parents earlier than anticipated.

“The web is a wonderful avenue to address community concerns,” says Renea Ivy-Sims, director of communications at Pearland (TX) Independent School District (www.pearlandisd.org). Its Q&A is called “Because You Asked,” with questions formatted in a way to avoid ambiguity and keep inaccurate information from being cut-and-pasted into other documents. Contributors to “Because You Asked” are anonymous. “As long as we’re getting questions and people are using the site, I’m considering it a successful venture,” says Ivy-Sims.

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