Developing a Better Student Reunification Process
School days around the world are bookended in very much the same manner—students arrive at their school by bus, car, bicycle, and on foot, and at the end of the school day, the reverse takes place and students return to their homes. The entire process is orchestrated, choreographed, practiced, commonly understood, and, most importantly, expected by everyone involved. But what happens when there is a need to return students to their parents outside of this routine?
Any abnormal cancellation of classes, regardless of cause, will require an organized process to reunite students and parents, so the right student is returned to the right parent or guardian and records are kept for positive documentation and accountability. Reunification—the process of returning the right student to the right parent when things go wrong—is one of the most operationally complex and potentially daunting tasks for any school staff.
Too often, reunification is considered only in the context of a school shooting or other critical incidents, but it can also be applied to severe weather, power or water outages, or more routine events like after field trips. By commonly applying elements of a school’s reunification plan, these lower impact events are golden opportunities for a school district to practice effectively reuniting students with their parents—experience that can be invaluable during extreme emergencies.
At the outset of the planning process, a clear definition of reunification is obligatory. This forms the foundation of an effective reunification planning process and enhances a broader understanding of the plan’s goals. The Idaho School Safety and Security Program recommends this definition: “The process used to assure the return of the students in your care to an authorized adult in any circumstance other than your expected ‘End-of-Day’ procedure while providing positive documentation of that action.”
With that common understanding, Idaho’s School Safety and Security Program developed and maintained a model procedure for its diverse schools and school districts. The development process utilized several full-scale exercises and after-action reviews (AAR) from recent incidents across the U.S. state.
The process is currently undergoing revision to include lessons learned from the 6 May 2021 school shooting at Rigby Middle School (RMS) in Rigby, Idaho, which has approximately 950 students in sixth through eighth grades (ages 11-14). A sixth-grade girl brought a gun to the school, shot and wounded two students and a custodian, and then was disarmed by a teacher and taken into police custody. Students were evacuated to a nearby high school to be reunited with parents and guardians.
The school district underwent a broad post-incident assessment, producing an AAR with 29 recommendations for preventative measures, improvements in incident response, guidance on mitigating trauma for individuals involved, and lessons learned for future reunification efforts.
“As with many elements of emergency response, the value of a plan is in the planning,” the post-incident review report said. “In this case, the district had developed and trained on reunification plans prior to the incident. Though several variables during the incident at RMS caused deviations from the original plans, the original concept of operations still helped guide reunification processes and actions.”
Understanding the factors that impact the complexity of reunification planning is a critical first step for anyone involved in the planning process. The RMS incident indicated that four factors had a significant impact on the complexity of the relocation process. First is simply the size of the student body. Intuitively this makes sense—more students means more complexity.
Second is the composition of the student body, including students’ ages and grades, as well as their socioeconomic backgrounds. Language, parental availability, communications capabilities, employment, transiency, and a dozen other socioeconomically impacted conditions—the same factors that affect educational efforts—will impact reunification efforts.
Third is the sufficient availability of well-trained staff. Reunification is a deceptively labor-intensive process, and having enough trained personnel—both school or district staff and volunteers—will be critical. School staff is a finite resource, and community volunteers can bolster the available manpower. Prior identification of suitable individuals and a training process to develop and maintain capability should play an integral part in reunification planning. Untrained people, however well meaning, are likely to be more of an impediment than a benefit.
The last factor—and potentially the most significant—for the reunification process is the nature of the triggering event. The more traumatizing the incident, the more complex the reunification will become.
Consider the Rigby school shooting. Everyone with a radio, badge, and gun responded, including law enforcement from multiple agencies, followed by fire, emergency medical services, and the media. Now include the parents, the wider community, and the inevitable spectators, whose presence can complicate reunification efforts. A less traumatic event such as a power outage would not produce such a massive and emotional response.
As with any planning process, student/parent reunification planning requires a group of base assumptions as a place to begin the process. The Idaho School Safety and Security Program offers the following list of assumptions for consideration, although specific school districts’ unique circumstances might require additions to this list.
Reunification is the last step in response; it is also the first step in recovery. This is both an operational statement and a philosophical acknowledgment. No matter the incident, the return of a student to the proper guardian in an effective, compassionate, and reasonably timely manner ends a school’s response and begins a community’s recovery.
Historically, ineffective reunification has had a reverberating traumatic effect on students, school staff members, parents, and the community at large. One of the most notable examples of this is the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, when mixed messaging and delayed reunification led to hours-long vigils when parents and relatives of 400 children waited for news.
Reunification will take time. As noted above, reuniting students with parents while providing accountability and documentation is operationally complex. As with any complex task, there is a time requirement. Preparing staff and the school community for this reality before an incident will pay dividends. Most people are willing to wait a bit if they understand the process and trust those in charge.
The entire community will be anxious and confused. Remember that anything outside the normal and expected will cause angst and confusion for everyone involved, including students, staff, and parents. The more aberrant the event, the greater the fear and uncertainty. This can be offset to some extent by training and preparation. During reunification, clear, timely, and consistent communication will do much to lower the boiling point, calm fears, and reduce confusion.
Communication will be critical, but normal pathways may be unavailable. Communication is often identified as a failure point in school response AARs. This is as true in reunification as it is in any other school response. Identification of available communication resources will be the crucial first step in the planning process.
As communications resources are identified, remember that normal communications pathways and processes could be lost, depending on the scale of the incident. Cell towers can be overwhelmed by greatly increased traffic—a real possibility in many school emergencies. School and district landlines can be jammed. Identify and develop alternative processes and pathways that have been tested and can be implemented should the need arise. This could include a district social media presence or fostering contacts at local radio and television media.
Pre-scripted messages that have been developed and reviewed prior to an incident will serve to make clear and timely communication much less difficult. Editing specific details into an existing message is much less difficult under stress than the creation of a brand new, coherent message. Schools must also contend with the information grapevine fueled by students with cell phones. Providing students with the information and message officials want disseminated can and should be a valuable communication method. While you will not eliminate misinformation, this process can serve to limit it to an extent.
The complexities of communication during an emergency mean finding and training a public information officer (PIO) is a critical consideration. The incident commander can either run a reunification or he or she can talk about a reunification; it is highly unlikely that one person can do both. School districts should also consider identifying and training a crisis communications specialist to assist the PIO. This person should have access to and familiarity with the school’s primary and secondary communications resources, and he or she should focus on operational communications during a reunification or other crisis.
Assume you do not know where all your students are. Accountability for all students at the outset of the triggering event is a parental expectation. Some incidents will make accounting for all students more difficult than others. In the confusion of a traumatic incident, some students may self-evacuate. This is particularly likely in the secondary setting with more mobile students, some of whom may have cars on campus. A process for self-evacuated students to report their location and condition should be developed, tested, and exercised. A text message pathway on a dedicated phone number for students has been used successfully in recent incidents.
Incidents with student injuries are particularly difficult, and incident response plans should prioritize early identification of any injured students. If all injured students can be identified with certainty, their parents can be notified quickly. This allows a general notification to all other parents that the parents of all injured students have been notified and if you have not been contacted, your student is not among those injured. This will lower the general level of anxiety.
When using this type of exception-based account reporting, however, certainty in the number and identification of all injured students is an absolute requirement. Inaccurate reporting can have both a negative public relations outcome and serious liability implications.
A traumatized staff will need help to accomplish reunification effectively. The nature of the triggering incident will impact the ability of a school staff to be operationally functional in a reunification. A school staff impacted by a traumatic incident will need more help in reunification than a staff returning students to their guardians following a protracted power outage.
The incident will affect other schools in your area. A traumatic incident at a middle school will have ripple effects in the area’s elementary and high schools. After past events, parents have removed their children from other schools to have all their children at home and under their control. This demand on the whole school district can limit its ability to send help to deal with the initial incident.
The use of an incident command system (ICS) as the organizational backbone for student/parent reunification offers several benefits, including commonality with the first responder community, the availability of ICS training, and helping to limit the span of control for incident commanders. Building administrators tend to over-task themselves, and an overly broad span of control—simply trying to juggle too many responsibilities at once—was identified as a common issue in several Idaho schools’ AARs.
Reunification in Practice
The two-gate process is becoming the de facto standard in student/parent reunification procedures. It is effective and highly adaptable to a variety of facilities and circumstances, and basic documentation or guidance is available for adaptation from several sources, including the U.S. Department of Education’s Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) Technical Assistance Center, SchoolSafety.gov, I Love U Guys, and the Idaho School Safety and Security Program.
The basic premise is that there are two spaces: one intake for requesting a student and one exit for the return of that student. Students are held in a secure third location physically separate but adjacent to the request and return stations. The three separate locations in the process provide flexibility and allow for enhanced security, improved crowd control, positive student accountability, and effective record keeping.
Consider a small elementary school building following a power outage. Parents or guardians arrive at the request station in the main office, while students are held in their classrooms, and they are returned to their parent or guardian in the front hall at the main door. A large preforming arts space, church, or other municipal space can be similarly configured. The two-gate process is applicable to a variety of facilities and circumstances.
Technology-based reunification systems are widely available for schools, but districts should have manual back-up processes in place as well—something as simple as pencil and paper can work. Technology can and has failed. “I can’t give you your student because my computer is down” will not be an acceptable response to worried parents.
For anyone serving in or working with schools to develop or review emergency operations plans, student/parent reunification is a necessary and critical element of that process. But remember, plans do not reunify students with their parents, people do. Developing and maintaining capacity for a school staff to function effectively in a reunification is the key to a positive outcome.
Developing that capacity is problematic; time for effective training is always the concern. Full-scale reunification exercises can be beneficial, but they are time consuming in both planning and execution, and school staffs have limited training time available. Still, training is the indispensable element in developing capacity. What a school staff does have is the regular need to return students to their parents outside of the normal end of day procedure. Any time that schools need to return the right kid to the correct parent and prove that they did it should be seen and used as an opportunity to train and develop reunification capacity.
Reunification is the last step in response; it is also the first step in recovery. Planning and training for this most complex task will pay major dividends. A well-executed reunification will lower trauma and speed up the recovery, allowing a school to return to education more quickly.
Guy Bliesner is a founding member of the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security, and he serves as a school safety and security analyst assigned to schools in southeast Idaho.