A Portrait of School District Crisis Management: Leadership Choices in Montgomery County during the Sniper Shootings of October 2002

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The actions of two assailants who shot and killed 10 people and wounded three others, including a student, in the region around Washington, D.C., in October 2002, provides the backdrop for a qualitative study of the emergency response by school district leaders in Montgomery County, Maryland. The study explores and describes the experiences of the district's superintendent and a group of leadership staff, including the author as a participant researcher, and two elected officials and a union president who contributed to the decisions and actions. A non-evaluative study, based on portraiture in the form of case study, the narrative report provides often minute-to-minute detail of the events of the case and a unique perspective of crisis management and decision making at the school district level. The study revealed aspects of the case regarding implementation of an emergency response plan, involvement of principals, management style, political extremes, and phases of the crisis. The study also illuminated targeted objectives for decision and actions, including a central focus on mental health and communications. The study reflects a subject area that is largely overlooked in the research of education leadership. Implications from the study are that school district leaders need specific training and experience necessary to manage a crisis, make decisions under crisis circumstances, and improve their performance through practice. The study identifies licensure for school district leaders as a way to attain a standardized level of competency in crisis management and decision making skills. The study also provides an entry point for further research in educational crisis management and decision making. In particular, the study explores a unique blend of research encompassing critical tasks in public leadership during a crisis, complex transformational processes among the components of a school district's social system, and expectations of high reliability in organizational environments that support mindfulness and expertise.