The Missing Piece: A Reunification Plan
I was sitting at a roundtable discussion hosted by Michele Gay of Safe and Sound Schools at the Midwest School Safety Summit in Kansas City. After losing a daughter at Sandy Hook, Michelle founded Safe and Sound Schools and has become an expert on the best practices for school safety. This roundtable was focused specifically on reunification. One administrator after the next spoke about all the safety tools they had in place to prevent or react to an active shooter, but each one agreed they did not have a highly developed plan for reunification. There was a general consensus that they were much more likely to experience other emergency events such as a fire, gas leak, weather-related event, or power outage. In these situations, a regular dismissal may not be possible, but the school still needs to safely reunite the students with their families whether it is on-site or at a secondary reunification site. Yet, with all the safety tools and procedures in place, there had been no significant contribution to the tools needed for reunification in the event of these emergencies.
Most school safety teams have a lot of meaningful discussions about protecting the school community before and during an emergency event. Schools cannot control an emergency event, but they can control their response. There are several essential components to Emergency Response Plans, and each area is a science of its own. Bringing it all together is key, and the final stage of reunifying safely and securely is an essential component often gets the least amount of attention, planning and practice. Yet, an effective reunification plan is developed in a collaborative manner for the whole school community. It is helpful to look at other school’s plans and responses to emergencies to study what was successful and revise and plan for the elements that were not.
Accountability: A Principal’s Story of Reunification
Mt. Vernon Elementary School Principal, Christina West tells the story of their response to a gas leak evacuation and the tools she used to manage the reunification process for her students and their families.
After there was a strong smell of gas fumes in our hallways, we took students outside to the playground area. The gas company came, and in a matter of minutes we were told to evacuate the entire building (PreK-2 students…around 390 students). They told us that they did not know when we could get back inside. We evacuated to our emergency plan building, a local church. When we left the school building, we had no idea we would not be able to come back for the rest of the day. This left us with our phones to communicate to parents. As the office staff and I were brainstorming on ways to communicate effectively to parents/families, it hit me…we will use KIDaccount! We were able to access KIDaccount within a matter of minutes, and we were able to pull up the emergency contacts for each student. Once parents were communicated with, we started the plan for parents to pick up their children from the church. We knew that we were dismissing the children safely and efficiently, thanks to KIDaccount. We had people that weren’t normally up there for dismissal, but with KIDaccount, they were able to pull up the child’s pick-up lists and ask for ID. Every staff member was seeing the same information and when a student was dismissed, the teacher could still see exactly who was there and who had already been dismissed. We had so many things going on in a short amount of time and with KIDaccount was being used, it gave me a sense of peace knowing that there was no concern for the safety of students.
KIDaccount is a digital software tool that manages dismissal and offers emergency management and reunification tools. It can work on any device with access to Wi-Fi or cellular data. Mt. Vernon’s staff were all familiar with the system because they use it everyday in the carline. When emergency situations occur, there is likely to be a lot of stress and confusion. Having staff familiar with a process and an effective tool to manage it helps to maintain a sense of calm.
Reunification: Best Practices
As you begin to rethink your reunification plan, use a trusted and reliable resource such as I Love You Guys Foundation for training tools and programs to help develop your plan. The following best practices are combination of information from Safe and Sound Schools, the I Love You Guys Foundation, many discussions with educational and school safety leaders, and knowledge gained from my own twenty years of experience as an educator.
- Develop a plan for on-site and off-site reunification. It is a good idea to have two off-site locations where students can be relocated to. When choosing these sites, here are a few questions to consider. Is there enough space to house all students and staff? Are there adequate facilities such as restrooms and private spaces for special concerns? Will there be adequate security and supervision? Is there space for parking when parents come to pick-up? Is it possible to have distance between the parent check-in and student release points? Many times, the secondary locations are a church or local place of business. Maintain frequent communication throughout the school year with those who run these sites to ensure you have access to the facility when an emergency arises.
- Prepare a reunification kit with all the materials needed to begin the reunification process. Some suggested supplies:
- Reunification binder, or if you have a digital reunification tool, have extra chargers for devices.
- Employee safety vests for easy identification.
- Two-way radios or other communication devices.
- Badges for identification of staff and parents.
- Signage such as a parent check-in banner, media area banner, alphabetical or grade level signs for parent check-in/tech stations.
- Hallway blackout curtains to create private spaces and to block parents and media from having a visual line of sight to the students.
- Basic supplies such as markers, paper, duct tape, painters’ tape, stapler, pens, clipboards, and tissues.
- Arrange for water and snacks for students.
- Plan ways to keep students quietly engaged while they wait to be reunified with their family.
- Communicate frequently and clearly with all staff and parents. It is difficult for parents to wait, but frequent, clear communication will give parents a sense of calm and control. Inform families about the process using various methods of communication. Communicate with the media if needed so they can assist with relaying information to the community. Talk about a communication plan with your local media ahead of time. Try to update information every 30 minutes. Frequent communication shows you are actively caring for the students, and you are actively working to reunite them with their families.
- Control access to the entrance. Parents want one thing when they arrive and that is to get their child. Having staff stationed in a manner to control how parents enter the site and how the check-in process is handled. It is difficult for parents to be patient and calm, so set up a space for parents to wait after they have checked in. Have staff, law enforcement or other uniformed personnel, and mental health workers assigned to this area to keep parents calm and informed. Have a secondary space to move parents who cannot maintain a sense of calm. Have perimeter control around the area. This can be created with caution tape and signage. Set up a location specifically for media making sure there is not a line of sight to the students.
- Identification of each person there to pick-up a student is essential. It is the responsibility of the school to make sure each student is matched with the correct guardian. It is important to have a process and documentation for that. Your process should include a binder with printed information for each student that includes their emergency contacts and approved caregivers who are allowed to pick up. This would need to be updated frequently. Another option would be to have a downloaded version of your student database on a computer. Again, this would need to be updated frequently. Or you can simplify this process with a tool such as KIDaccount to manage this information digitally and access it from any device with WiFi or cellular data. This browser-based program will ensure every student is matched with an approved caregiver and will alert if someone who has legal restrictions shows up to pick up a student. Accurate records of who picked up each student will be recorded within the system by scanning an ID badge or searching for the student by name in the system.
- Reunify students with their families after each student has been checked for injury or assessed by a mental health worker. Verify that each parent has been checked in, identified properly, and has proper authority to pick up the student before brining the student to the reunification area. Set up the location so that there are separate locations for check-in area, student holding area, and reunification area. It is best if there is no line of sight from one location to the next so parents and students do not have access to each other until parents have been properly identified.
While we continue to work to make schools as safe as possible, there will still be events out of our control. How we respond to those events will make the difference in the recovery in the aftermath of an emergency or tragic event. Remember, there is no timeline on reunification. The number one priority is to make sure the students are safe and that families get reunified safely and securely. To learn more about how to use KIDaccount as an emergency management tool, book a demo or contact us by clicking the buttons below.