3 Steps to Creating a Family Reunification Plan

Chris Dorn
March 24, 2014 — 1,493 views  

Family reunification is a functional protocol that outlines the redirection of a school’s occupants to a secured site that is removed from the scene of the crisis and supports the effort to reunite students with their families. In many school crises, even those not related to violence or immediate danger, parents and loved ones may rush to the school to sign out their child. Based on a wide range of emergencies that we have studied, an average of two to three adults may come to the school for each student. 

In some situations, this phenomenon has caused critical delays in life-saving response from police, fire and medical personnel trying to get to the scene. In one case, emergency medical technicians had to carry stretchers for several blocks from their vehicles past a traffic jam to reach a school where a shooting had occurred. It is important for parents to understand that the school has a plan in place for reunification for several reasons: 1) it aids in emergency response because parents are already aware that there will be an off-site reunification; 2) it increases cooperation from parents because they have confidence that the school is prepared for a crisis; 3) it increases participation in keeping contact information updated, since this will be the method of notification during a crisis event.

In order to achieve this type of relocation, detailed planning must be undertaken. Here are three of the main components of the process that is required to develop successful reunification plans:

  1. Write procedures and protocols: This activity will require an intensive session of writing, discussion and quick decision making. The plan must contain a robust logistics component as well as protocols and procedures for faculty, staff, volunteers and parents. It should also include a decision-making metric so school officials can quickly determine when to activate the protocol. This type of crisis plan should be a part of the overall school safety plan for the district. Family reunification procedures are just one component of an emergency response plan, which should also include protocols for evacuation, reverse evacuation, two forms of lockdown, room clear, shelter in place and other key emergency functions.
  2. Develop Job Action Sheets: Job Action Sheets (JAS) are a tool for defining and performing a specific emergency response functional role. When developing a family reunification program, it is important to identify key tasks and create job actions for those tasks based on the procedures and protocols that were developed previously. This step cannot take place until plans are completed.
  3. Exercises and drills: Make sure that everyone (including front office staff) actively participates in exercises and drills for this type of school evacuation. Exercises that test transportation, crisis communication as well as emergency functions are key to the success of the plan. As with JAS, this step of the process must not be performed until plans and protocols are completed. A family reunification exercise is a great way to test how plans will perform in action, but the process of developing and carrying out the exercise can be complex and can be dangerous if not done properly.

Here are some additional things to consider when creating family reunification protocols for staff:

  • Any time a crisis occurs at school, you should be prepared for the possibility of an off-site evacuation. This might occur because it is safer to evacuate to a remote site or will be easier to reunite students and parents at another location.
  • Remember that some parents may have children in multiple classes, grade levels, schools, etc. Make plans for these parents in your reunification process so that they are not exposed to the additional stress of trying to be in two or more places at once because they are expected to retrieve students from multiple locations.
  • Identifying the appropriate site is crucial to the success of the Family Reunification Plan. Remember, the site must be able to accommodate large groups of people. The location chosen for reunification should typically not be another school, since this may cause confusion and concern in parents from both schools instead of one.
  • In general, you should not publicize the location of the reunification site beforehand. While planning teams and staff members should be aware of this information, do not share these locations with the general public because this can increase the risk that an attacker plans a secondary attack for this location or places an explosive device there.
  • Look for ways to increase the chances that parents will receive notification that reunification is taking place. Use your school’s emergency notification system for parents, calling trees for staff if necessary, or whatever methods work best for your organization. Some schools have come up with creative ways to share information with staff and parents. The main thing to remember is that whatever system you come up with should be thoroughly tested with a progressive drill and exercise program.
  • Include the media in your pre-planning efforts.  Include them in the conversation so they understand their role in the process and they can be prepared to help spread the message during a crisis. The media can be turned into a powerful asset during a family reunification process if they are given prepared messages and a general idea of how the process works beforehand.
  • Include considerations for the parents, staff and first responders who may be at the reunification site for a prolonged period of time. Examples of physical resources that are beneficial include tables, tents, paperwork and checklists for teams that will staff the site, chairs or benches for parents and students, bottled water, snacks, medical triage locations, etc.
  • Remember to account for short term special needs individuals, such as a student who normally has full mobility but has a broken leg or a cast on their arm. Someone who has little difficulty in a day-to-day environment may have particular difficulties in responding to a crisis due to the increased level of stress and physical activity required during an emergency situation. Account for language barriers as well. Consider the need for translators and other communications or medical assistance at the reunification site.
  • Don’t forget to provide close supervision for students during staging, transport and upon arrival at the family reunification site. Students have often become separated during evacuations relating to major crises, and sexual predators, non-custodial parents and other unscrupulous individuals have been known to arrive at school crisis scenes. Be especially aware of the movement of vehicles in proximity to students during this process. Staff and students could become injured during the chaos of a crisis.

In any emergency, the mental health of students and parents involved can be impacted by the success of family reunification. It is very easy for a relatively minor incident to turn into a major crisis simply because the reunification process takes so long. In addition, a prolonged reunification process increases the duration of the incident as a whole and allows more time for media personnel to arrive on the scene and create more of a disruption. 

A noted authority on school family reunification, Dr. Sonayia Shepherd (Sony) has authored and co-authored 16 books on school and childcare safety and emergency management. She has worked directly with hundreds of schools and childcare organizations across the nation and provided crisis response and recovery support following many school emergencies and major disasters around the world.

Chris Dorn has co-authored five books on school safety and  worked with schools and stakeholder organizations in more than 30 states. He leads the Safe Havens International video production unit and has produced or assisted with hundreds of school safety training videos including The First 30 Seconds: School Crisis Scenarios.

Their latest book, Staying Alive: How To Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters, is coming this spring.

Chris Dorn