Brattleboro >> Suppose you received an alert that your child's school was involved in a crisis situation. Would you and your child know what to do and where to go until you were back together again?
That was the focus of a reunification exercise at Brattleboro Union High School Thursday that involved emergency services personnel and school staff as well as dozens of mock parents and real students. Emergency Services and the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union sponsored the exercise process of the Brattleboro School Crisis Response Team.
"I think this is a perfect example of a community approach to school safety, and to think we could get 50 or 60 volunteers and 80 or 90 kids in a room do this kind of stuff when it's a non-emergency situation, is fantastic," said Rob Evans, the Vermont liaison for K-12 schools who works in partnership with the Vermont Agency of Education and Department of Public Safety. "I wish I could carbon copy this and take it across the state because this is the gold standard of how things should be done."
As part of the town's school crisis emergency response plan, there is a plan laid out for town departments and school districts. The reunification piece of that plan involves reuniting parents or guardians with their children after a school crisis. Thursday's scenario during the exercise was that an act of violence had occurred within the high school.
Students were transported from the high school to the VFW where they waited in one room while the mock parents stayed in another. Parents and students were guided to a private location where they could be reunited one by one. The parents would then sign a student/reunification card once they were reunited with their child. In the case where a student did not arrive at the safe location the parents would be held there until their child is located. In a worse-case scenario where a child did not survive the crisis situation, Brattleboro Fire Chief Michael Bucossi said the parents would be transported with an officer to their desired location with needed services.
"We thought this reunification process would be important to drill because in an event that we need to evacuate the school, which we have had to do, we want to make sure there is a process in place," said Superintendent of Schools Ron Stahley. "This is kind of a next stage of that emergency planning, where we would actually have students come off campus, evacuated and then have them reunited with their parents, so we think that's important to practice in case we really have to do it."
The exercise involved reunification staff from the municipality and school district, senior staff, and other key personnel/agencies and was designed to assess plans, policies, and procedures needed to guide in the response to, and recovery from a school event. Some students reflected on their experience.
"I thought it was a little different than it was going to be, I thought that once we got here we were going to be talking about what would happen if there was an actual emergency versus sitting there not really knowing what's going on and then being reunited with our 'parents,' and then being put back on the bus," said Ema Baldauf, a senior at BUHS. "The basic idea was understood, but the drill itself, I don't know if it was very legitimate or not, I suppose."
Some students had similar feelings to Baldauf, while others felt the process was clear and had no suggestions.
"It kind of took awhile, but I guess it was for our safety," said Jason Willette, a senior at BUHS. Caleb Rounds, a junior, added, "I think it was very well planned, I don' think there was anything we needed to fix."
Part of the drill Thursday was arranged to leave room for comments and suggestions from volunteers, mock parents and students. Evans noted that communication is huge in these exercises.
"The important aspect is accurate information, you can't just give it, if it's not going to be credible, so I think that's the difficult part," said Evans. Evans also mentioned there are different alert notification processes, including a school-specific one for faculty, staff, parents and sometimes students. Some of the known electronic base notification systems are Blackboard Connect or Blackboard Connect 5. The state also has an alert notification system where communities can get those notifications that come through email or text.
There are four reunification locations, but they are not released until an incident occurs. Bucossi said the reasoning for that is so the site can be set up and secured before parents or guardians or press swarm the area. There is also a safety factor because departments would not want a potential perpetrator to know of the exact location.
The school district is seeking to change the way schools respond to the threat of armed intruders and officials are looking to ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate), which "teaches age-appropriate strategies to survive a life-threatening event," according to the ALICE website.
In June 2015, after the end of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union school year, administrators received a two-day ALICE training. Chris Day, assistant principal at BUHS, has given ALICE workshops to staff at the Windham Regional Career Center, Brattleboro Area Middle School, as well as BUHS.
"This plan is constantly be updated, changed and revised," said Bucossi about the school's crisis emergency response plan.
Volunteers filled out an evaluation survey at the end of the reunification exercise and other observations during the exercise will be taken into account and reviewed by early May of this year. Then an after-action meeting will be held to address the concerns.
Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275