ST. GEORGE — Given a recent rash of threats involving students in Washington County, the school districts in Washington and Iron counties are working to inform the community on proper procedures for responding, including encouraging parents to be patient in the event of a school emergency.
Last year, the State Board of Education approved a rule mandating all Utah public schools to have published plans for reuniting students with their parents during emergencies and avoiding any unnecessary risk.
After a school lockdown or evacuation, the first reaction from parents is often to rush to the school in an attempt to get to their children as quickly as possible. However, Washington County School District Communications Director Steven Dunham told St. George News this is counterproductive for law enforcement, faculty, staff and student safety.
When parents swarm the school, law enforcement personnel are taken away from a potential investigation or an active threat to monitor the release of students. If an event that requires emergency interventions does occur, a family reunification process has been put into place and will be activated when the situation has been resolved, he said.
“That is the worst possible thing that could happen because as parents rush the school, it creates traffic problems,” he said. “It also creates a situation where police have to remove resources — officers — from the incident at the school and put them out on crowd control, put them out on parent control. You don’t want that; you want every possible resource available to help your children.”
According to the Washington County School District’s policy, in the event of an emergency, personnel will send out an alert to parents, letting them know where their children have been relocated to — if it requires an off-site evacuation — and notifying parents when students will be released under one of two protocols: quick release and slow release.
The alert itself will be sent through the district’s messenger app, and in the event of a reunification, the district uses every medium available to them, including email, phone calls and text. These alerts would be sent to every contact on file with the district.
A quick release involves returning a student to their parents from the school via the student’s outside classroom door and is facilitated by the student’s teacher. On the other hand, a slow release entails reunifying a family from a reunification station outside of the school building and is facilitated by a specially-trained family reunification team. High school students, however, can be released on their own in some situations.
These reunification incidents are far and few between, Dunham said, which is fortunate because “it is a significant upheaval for the school, the students, the district, the parents and the community.” However, he said it is a necessary procedure to maintain student safety.
“In an emergency, it would be an even bigger tragedy if a student were lost or missing or ended up with a noncustodial parent or some other catastrophe,” he said. “You don’t want to compound upon the incident that is already taking place. We would rather ensure our students’ safety up into their parents hands.”
Dunham said the quick release is essentially the same as picking a child up early from classes. The person who comes to pick up their student must be a parent with custody of the child, an appointed guardian or one of the listed emergency individuals and must have photo identification.
In the event of a slow release, parents must fill out a form to verify the identity of the person attempting to pick up a child and document the release of a child to their parent. During these instances, parents can fill out the forms in their cars, and volunteers will collect the information while teachers prepare students to leave. Volunteers also help with traffic and speaking with parents.
“Parents want their children back, we want to get the children back. We want to do it as quickly as possible,” Dunham said. “The more volunteers we have on one hand the faster we can make it work.”
Roy Matthews, Iron County School District director of secondary education, told St. George News the school district is actively working to solidify plans to ensure the safety of students in the event of an emergency.
If an evacuation is necessary, he said, secondary locations have been established for each school, and similar to Washington County, parents would be sent to this location to pick their students up. At each of the locations, a central command center will be established to ensure a smooth release of students to their families. Parents are asked to remain at the command center while their children are retrieved.
“I think the hardest part about reunification is practicing it and working out the bugs,” Matthews said.
Iron County School District practices lockdown and fire drills the most, he said, but the district is working with local law enforcement to organize a practice site for a reunification drill in the future. The date has yet to be set as the district is still working through the process.
It’s hard to practice the reunification process, Matthews said, because it takes up almost an entire day of instruction.
“School safety is a top priority in the world we live in, and trying to get it all to where it’s systematic is important,” Matthews said. “It’s a worthy work.”
On Nov. 14, the city of Ivins will be hosting an educational night during its regularly scheduled emergency preparedness meeting. A presentation on the reunification process is expected to take place, with Dunham explaining the procedures behind the process and opening the room to questions from parents.. The event is scheduled for 7 p.m. in Ivins City Hall.
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