SALT LAKE CITY — Are parent-child reunification drills the next step in school safety?
On Thursday, the State School Board will consider a policy calling on Utah public schools to conduct drills with parents "so everyone is on the same page" in the event of a school evacuation.
According to the proposal to be considered, schools would be expected to develop a parent and student reunification plan.
Beginning with the 2019-20 school year, schools would be encouraged to conduct at least one reunification drill annually, according to the latest proposal.
Some Utah schools now conduct the drills in cooperation with local law enforcement. During the drills, teachers walk students to pre-determined, off-site venues where they gather in color-coded zones.
The parents travel to the site and meet their child or children in their respective zones in a specific order. Once all students are accounted for, the school releases children to parents who have photo identification. Parents are also permitted to pick up other people's children if they are an approved emergency contact.
State School Board member Linda Hansen, who represents western Salt Lake County as well as Tooele, Juab and a portion of Utah County, said the drills help refine processes in the event of an actual emergency.
"If everybody is on the same page, I think there's peace of mind for everybody," said Hansen, one of two board members proposing the change, according to the board's agenda.
Hansen acknowledges it may be inconvenient for parents to take part in a drill during the school day "but as a parent, I want what's best for kids, and as a board of education, I hope we want what's best for kids."
Participating in the drills would inform and comfort parents about the procedures in place to keep their children safe.
"Parents need to know what's happening. They need to be part of the conversation," she said.
Hansen said she worries when children telephone, text or email their parents during a school emergency and parents advise them to run or hide in a certain place.
"What if they're having them run into harm's way?" she said.
Because the parents are not on site, they may act or advise their child based on incomplete or inaccurate information.
That's what happened on May 23, when several armed parents showed up at Marsh Valley High School in Arimo, Idaho, after learning the school was on lockdown. The lockdown was initiated because a student was purportedly carrying a pistol and threatening his sister. The two had a verbal dispute but the report of the youth possessing a gun was determined to be unfounded.
Some parents carried AR-15-style rifles, according to media reports. One parent who carried an unholstered pistol arrived at the school about the same time as the first sheriff's deputies and had a confrontation with a state trooper, according to the Idaho State Journal.
Some State School Board members recently toured the Utah Division of Emergency Management headquarters on Capitol Hill to learn more about state-level response capabilities, Hansen said.
Jeff Johnson, state school readiness coordinator, told the group that student-parent reunification drills would be another layer of preparedness for schools.
Hansen said as a parent, it would give her peace of mind to know a school's evacuation plan and to participate in a drill.
Her own son has disabilities "so he's not going to pick up the phone and call me."
As she discussed the proposed policy with her husband, it occurred to her that neither of them knew where to meet their son if his school was evacuated.
"It's so important for parents to have this information, know their kids are safe and know what to do," she said.
Johnson told the group it could take a school up to two hours to complete a reunification drill on the first try. On a second attempt, the drill can be completed within about 40 minutes.
Missy Rose, who participated in a reunification drill at her children's elementary school, said the exercise was "good in a sense that they had a plan, but I was a little worried because I was in the last pick-up group. I said 'What are my kids going to be going do for an hour and a half or two hours?'"
For purposes of the drill, at least, Rose's children weathered the experience well, she said.
Rose said she appreciates that there is a plan in place in the event the unthinkable happens. It was well organized and she knew in advance what to bring.
But some parents were a little "put out" by the inconvenience of participating in the drill or arranging for someone else to pick up their kids, she said. Even so, only one parent didn't participate.
Rose, who is a teacher at a nearby junior high, said it was also a reminder of the importance of contingency plans.
"I have seven emergency contacts on my account now and that's OK because those are the people I trust," she said
While the drills may frustrate some, Hansen said they are a valuable opportunity to "work out the bugs" of school evacuation plans, she said.
While many schools have designated evacuation sites — often LDS Church buildings in close proximity to schools — school principals do not have keys to the buildings.
Hansen said a school principal at a recent meeting she attended recounted a conversation with an LDS community leader who told her he could not provide her a key, which meant they needed to do some problem solving in advance of a crisis.
The principal replied, "Well, we've got to work something out because I'm not going to be able to track you down," Hansen said.