No parent wants to imagine a scenario where their children are threatened at school — whether it's by severe weather, a power outage or an act of school violence — Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools is taking measures to prevent panic and pandemonium that could ensue after such an incident.
On June 18, district staff, with the help of local emergency responders and parents, conducted a functional exercise that simulates the response that would occur during a crisis emergency at Glendale Elementary, Prior Lake High School and the District Services Center. The exercise, called the Standard Reunification Method (SRM), is a practical method to unite students with parents after an evacuation or crisis designed by the I Love U Guys Foundation.
The I Love U Guys Foundation was started in 2006 by John-Michael Keyes and his wife Ellen, following the death of their daughter, Emily, during the Platte Canyon High School hostage crisis that took place on Sept. 27, 2006 in Bailey, Colorado. Emily texted “i love u guys” during the ordeal and the foundation's programs have now been implemented by over 30,000 schools, agencies and organizations across the United States, Canada and 11 other countries.
Working together behind the scenes
About 180 volunteers assisted district personnel in practicing their designated roles during the four-hour drill. Mission role players acted out different scenarios such as what to do if someone is sent to the hospital if they were injured and organizing all the logistics behind the scenes such as making sure all students are accounted for.
Joan Heise, director of operations of the Incident Command Staff and administrative assistant to the assistant superintendent, said the reunification process was planned with the help of local law enforcement and public safety partners and is designed to ensure parents and students are safely reunited during an emergency.
"These local public safety partners have been phenomenal at partnering with us in our school safety trainings and planning," said Heise. "We have had numerous pre-training networking meetings with Prior Lake Police and Fire Departments, Savage Police and Fire Departments, Scott County Sheriff Emergency Management, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community Emergency Management and Allina Health Emergency Medical Services."
Heise said the district's first priority is to provide safe environments for all students, faculty and parents.
"Let's say something happens like a natural disaster, act of violence, some type of utility incident or something happened close to the school — we don't want to let kids walk home for their safety," said Heise. "We have to formally reunite students with their parents or guardians. Since we're not reuniting or sending off kids in a normal way, we need to have a more organized formal process."
Prepared to respond
Heise said the main thing the district wants parents to learn from the exercise is that it does have a plan put in place in case of any emergency crisis.
"We want to let parents know that if an event were to happen, to stay at home, watch for communications to come out from the school and be ready to pick up your child," said Heise. "Bottom line, we do want our parents to know that we do have a plan for an unexpected end of the school day."
According to the district, prior to reuniting families with their students, it is important for parents to remember the following:
- Stay home. Going to the school could interfere with emergency responders' ability to respond to the crisis.
- Stay informed. Reunification will occur at a different location than the school a student attends. Do not call or text. The district will keep parents informed. Parents can stay informed by checking the school's website, social media and local news stations. The district will also send information and reunification instructions through e-mail, phone calls and text messages as soon as possible.
- Be ready. Parents will be instructed to bring a photo ID and come to a reunification check-in location to be reunited with their child.
Heise added that the exercise was three years in the making and had to be postponed one year due to COVID-19.
"We had scheduled for last year at this time but because of COVID we postponed it, and as far as we know, we don't know of any other district that has done a functional exercise yet," said Heise. "I think Stillwater was the first to plan it but they postponed due to COVID as well. So, this has been a long time in the making. This is the first time we're doing SRM."
Heise said the district researched and looked into several different safety protocols before adopting the I Love U Guys Foundation's program.
"Maureen Mullen, assistant director of operations, transportation, health and safety, was tasked at looking at different protocols out there. As she was researching, she found the I Love U Guys Foundation and they have this whole SRM protocol. That lead seven of us to go to Denver, Colorado and that was back in July 2018," said Heise. "That's when we attended that multi-day workshop and decided to adopt the policy procedure for reunification. It ended up being three years all gearing up to the exercise today."
Superintendent Teri Staloch said it was an emotional exercise that needed to take place.
"I think the last three years, after the initial training in Colorado through the I Love U Guys Foundation, I recognize that there is no way we can care about learning if we don't care first and foremost about safety," said Staloch. "It was the most powerful training I ever went to in my life and we came back with urgency, commitment and passion to carry this forward."
Staloch said prior to the training in Colorado, the district had assembled a team of over 120 community stakeholders to review its strategic plan to prioritize what was most important.
"One of the things that was added was a new strategic direction around health and safety and emotional well-being of students," she said. "Health and safety is the top most priority, the second piece is social and emotional well-being which is a huge piece of safety. Should a horrible thing ever happen while school is in session, we want to let parents know that we're ready, we're confident and cooperative to make sure we succeed."