A Comprehensive Reunification Guide for School Administrators

Navigate Prepared

Schools are always something of a chaotic environment—but on the best of days, it's controlled chaos. Any situation where you're dealing with hundreds of students and faculty members would likely meet that description more often than not. But when you start talking about a naturally overwhelming event like a school evacuation, the "controlled" portion of that idea is suddenly nowhere to be found.

A few years ago, we had a situation at my school where a student had made a bomb threat. When we contacted the police and more information was uncovered, we knew we had to evacuate the building. The authorities had planned to come in, do a search of the building, and upon completion, assuming no threat was found, we would be able to resume normal activities.

Based on my experiences that day, I knew we were ill-prepared to handle an entire campus evacuation.

Schools are always something of a chaotic environment—but on the best of days, it's controlled chaos. Throw in an evacuation, and “controlled” goes out the window.

School had already been dismissed, so anyone who was still in the building were staff, athletes, and kids participating in extracurricular activities. While we were dealing with a smaller scale event than during the academic day, we still needed to evacuate the entire campus. We made an announcement very calmly asking people to evacuate the building, but when a student saw police on campus, the student dialed 9-1-1 and incorrectly reported an active shooter. That false information triggered an entirely different response. Things escalated quickly—to the point where any law enforcement within a 20-mile radius of our school descended on campus in a matter of minutes.

As an administrator, I realized that even though I'd stayed behind to help coordinate what was happening, there was nothing at the evacuation site to give any of our students or staff more direction beyond "sit here and wait."

What that event taught us was that we needed a plan that encompassed what to do before and after an evacuation, not just during. Getting people out of the building quickly and safely is only one part of a much larger story taking place.

Based on all this, we created a Reunification Planning Guide for School Administrators that we now live by in these types of situations. Today, I'd like to show you how you can create one for your own environment, too. 

Your Reunification Planning Guide: Communication Is Critical

Out of all the things that are essential to laying out the processes and procedures for an effective reunification strategy, communication undoubtedly tops them all. It is mission critical to have open, honest, and ongoing conversations with all key stakeholders so you know what your strategy looks like, what it's designed to do, and more.

Out of all the things that are essential to laying out the processes and procedures for an effective reunification strategy, communication undoubtedly tops them all.

My first step to that end involved planning a meeting with the chief of police, our local law enforcement contacts, our superintendent, and other stakeholders. We had conversations that were monumentally important in getting a general sense of what our plan might look like, what our options were, and what alternatives were available.

Once we determined we wanted to conduct an evacuation and reunification drill, we began to think of people who are traditionally "outside" of our school, like the parents of our students and local media. We made a continuing effort to be extremely clear about our objectives from the beginning, which was necessary to help drive focus. We were up front about what we expected from kids as a part of this drill and what role parents would play as well. It is good to remember that in a real-life situation, no matter how many times you practice, there is always going to be something that does not go according to plan. You must assume this to be true.

Therefore, being clear with families ahead of time helps guarantee that the hurdles we do experience on that day don't cost someone their life or put anyone in danger.

On the day of our drill, everyone involved from law enforcement to students and staff received a name badge. On the back of the name badge, it clearly articulated what that particular person was expected to do as a part of the reunification process. Everyone knew what their role was. By identifying those roles ahead of time, you ensure that everyone has a solid framework and can take ownership of their role. 

Supporting Your Efforts with Modern Technology

Laying the groundwork for open and honest communication was the start of this process, but I also knew we needed to leverage any opportunity for improvement we could find. I started thinking about reunification planning from a technological point of view, and that is something I recommend everyone do as they develop strategies of their own.

Right at that time, someone from NaviGate Prepared reached out to us and informed us they were thinking about piloting a reunification app. Because of the event that we'd already gone through and the specific gaps in communication and information we were experiencing, we knew we would be the perfect school to try it out. A few weeks later, we got together with the people from NaviGate Prepared for a meeting and started talking through the solution. Along with the chief of police, we went through what the goal of the app was, what the features were, and then we discussed how we could  pilot this within our community in an effective way.

Technology can do incredible things, and in a situation with stakes as high as reunification, you have to be willing to use that to your advantage. We're living in a time when the vast majority of people—including students and teachers—own a smartphone. It's an incredible asset, but it's up to you to leverage that properly.

A Matter of Logistics

As I said before, part of my initial efforts involved creating name badges that clearly outlined what role each person would play during the reunification process. That helped enormously in terms of communication, but it was also beneficial for something equally pressing: logistics.

People just don't need to know what you expect them to do in a situation like an evacuation. They also need to know how you expect them to do it. Because people had designated roles, they knew where they were supposed to evacuate to during an active shooter versus something like a fire. They also knew where they shouldn't go and why these specific locations mattered. At that point, we also outlined steps regarding how they were supposed to notify parents and how quickly that needed to happen in an effort to keep everyone aware, up to date, and on the same page.

Our work also helped us realize how important it is to have multiple methods of communication in these types of incidents. 

Even moving away from the idea of a bomb threat or active shooter, what happens if a fire breaks out in your school and the phone lines are jammed? What happens if the internet goes down? How are you going to convey important information to people as quickly as possible when two of your major communication methods are suddenly inaccessible?

Our building is relatively old, so we knew that in the event of a real-life situation, we had to go beyond a simple PA announcement. As someone who is supposed to have visibility over this entire process, you need to know who is communicating with who and why. You need to know how they're communicating and what information is being sent out over the PA versus an app or text message. Above it all, you need to be clear and purposeful about what information is being shared. Sometimes, too much information can harm your efforts and not help them, which is why you need to convey only the information that people need in that moment to perform the duty you've asked of them. 

Technology can do incredible things, and in a situation with stakes as high as reunification, you have to be willing to use that to your advantage.

Inundating people with too much information too quickly is only going to overwhelm them. Schools must be willing to teach these skills so that people can remain calm and follow procedures during a reunification event. As we were quick to learn, technology is an integral part in how you accomplish that. 

Learning From the Past to Improve the Future

Flash forward to today and we have a comprehensive, organic reunification plan that we know is going to serve us in our time of need. We know this because we recently ran a drill to put all of our hard work to the test.

In conjunction with NaviGate Prepared, we brought together administrators, students, teachers, parents, and first responders for a mock reunification drill on the first day of summer vacation. We designed a scenario where students would need to be evacuated to an off-campus location of our choosing, where parents could then safely pick them up.

Off campus was important, considering that law enforcement and first responders would be creating a perimeter around our campus that would prevent anyone from entering from blocks away. We knew bringing parents to school to try to reunify didn't make sense. Once the situation was secure and all students were accounted for, parents received instructions via phone calls, text messages, and emails on how and where to pick up their children. After presenting valid identification, parents and students were reunified and everyone was able to go about their business.

If I had to do it all over again, I certainly wouldn't run this drill on the first day of summer. It was very difficult given the time of the year to get kids and their parents to participate. If I was recommending this to anyone else, I would say make use of a Saturday during the year when it's easier to get people to participate.

Another thing I wish we had considered was to have the staff at NaviGate Prepared come in earlier in the process than they did. This is nobody's fault, however I think engaging them sooner would have given them an opportunity to walk the staff through the app in a more intimate way. Ultimately, you need people to be familiar with the technology you're asking them to use before they need to use it.

Communicating with law enforcement, school officials, and families is critical at the beginning of this process, and equally essential at the end. To anyone trying to put together a reunification planning guide of their own, debriefing at the end with key stakeholders isn't a recommendation, it's a requirement.

As a school administrator, your evaluation of this process must be comprehensive. Seeking feedback from school personnel was important, however parents and students provided a unique and equally valuable perspective. It is imperative to consider all viewpoints when making final recommendations. Only then could we make better, more informed decisions for the future.

In the end, remember that every school is different. There's no one-size-fits-all approach to reunification planning. I strongly encourage all schools to engage stakeholders, determine goals and objectives, and take the time to truly walk through this process.