The police caution tape outside Sam Boardman Elementary School in Morrow County was not meant to alarm but to help prevent anguished chaos someday in Northeast Oregon.
The yellow caution tape had been put up to direct people who were participating in a reunification exercise following an active shooter drill less than a mile away at Boardman’s Riverside Junior-Senior High School.
The purpose of the April 13 reunification drill, organized by the InterMountain Education Service District, was to demonstrate how to best reunite parents and their children after a school is evacuated following an active shooter emergency.
School districts that have not planned for such events run the risk of encountering havoc as desperate parents search for their children following a school shooting.
“It is important to be prepared for this so there will not be chaos when the real thing happens,” said Larry Glaze, the InterMountain Education Service District’s director of operations.
Glaze, who served as superintendent of the La Grande School District from 2008 to 2017, said the key point he came away from the reunification exercise is the importance of being highly organized and documenting each step in the process of reuniting parents and children.
In the model used at Boardman, those portraying students were in the school’s gym. Parents were required to show photo ID and to sign in at a station outside the school, then an official would call for their children in the gym. The students were led outside and reunited with their parents at a gate site on the east side of the school where hugs were exchanged by the role players.
“It was very organized,” said Glaze, who lives in La Grande. “Much more planning is needed for this than for an earthquake drill, a fire drill or a lockdown. It is a much more involved process”
Nationwide, researchers believe that reunification drills need to be conducted more often.
“Parent-student reunification is one of the most frequently ignored or underdeveloped aspects of school emergency planning,” wrote Ashleigh Welko, a physician in Pittsburgh, in a research paper written while at Wright State University entitled “Bringing Families Together: Parent-Student Reunification Procedures in School Crisis Planning.”
Welko said a quick unification process can reduce the long-term negative impact of a school crisis.
“A poorly developed reunification plan has the potential to become an enormous source of chaos in the aftermath of a school crisis. Expedient reunification reduces the potential for lasting trauma to both children and their parents,” Welko wrote. “Managing anxious parents is one of the biggest after-crisis issues schools must deal with.”
Earl Pettit, superintendent of the Cove School District, who observed the drill in Boardman, said the experience was of great value.
“Running through a practice like that helped us identify issues,” he said.
One of the key points Pettit learned from the drill was the importance of not revealing the reunification site too early. Pettit said if parents know where the site is ahead of time, they will converge on it before the school district is set up to begin releasing students.
“Parents would already be there and we would not be ready,” he noted.
This would greatly hinder school district staff and volunteers setting up the renunciation site.
“It would be a crazy situation and parents would be very frustrated,” Pettit said.
The Cove superintendent said a reunification site would be more than a place where parents and their children would reunite following a school crisis.
“It would be the first place (the students and staff) could receive counseling and other services,” Pettit said.
Mark Mulvihill, superintendent of the InterMountain Education Service District, said he was encouraged by how well the reunification drill went in Boardman, but he noted that in real life, emotions would be sky-high at a reunification site, with parents waiting anxiously for children who might not arrive. Mulvihill said plans for addressing this and other emotional issues need to be carefully considered.
The ESD superintendent hopes more reunification and active shooter drills can be conducted in the future within the InterMountain ESD, which serves school districts in Union, Baker, Umatilla and Morrow counties.
With each drill, something new is learned, Mulvihill said.
La Grande Middle School Principal Kyle McKinney said one of the most important issues to consider in reunification is that many students will run away from their schools to escape an active shooter.
“This will make it harder to account for all of our students,” McKinney said.
He said people who live in homes near schools also need to be educated. If children run into their homes in a school crisis, they need to know how to notify school officials of the whereabouts of the students.
McKinney also stressed it will be important the students know how to get to the reunification site on their own if need be, so they can be accounted for.
The principal said having a highly organized reunification process is critical because of the chaotic nature of school violence. Law enforcement officers would be needed for crowd control — officers whose time might be better spent addressing the active shooter situation and securing the school.
The La Grande School District is now fine-tuning its plans for reunification in the event of an evacuation caused by an emergency. Scott Carpenter, the assistant principal at La Grande High School, is helping lead the effort. Carpenter said the school district has had a good plan in place for years. He is now examining renunciation and evacuation plans from school districts throughout the state to find ways that the La Grande School District’s plan can be improved.