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School districts prepare for crisis, receive reunification training

By CJ Vetter

HAYS COUNTY – Wimberley ISD, Dripping Springs ISD and San Marcos ISD received a two-day training on post-emergency reunification July 25 through July 26,  at San Marcos High School. The training was coordinated by the nonprofit group I Love U Guys Foundation – its goal is to provide a consistent way to reunite parents with their children following emergencies.

The Standard Reunification Method (SRM) employed by I Love U Guys centers around creating an accountable and compassionate process that avoids chaotic situations. The process begins immediately following a crisis as children are moved to a pre-determined location away from the impacted area. Once the children are fully moved and safe, district staff coordinates with police, EMS and fire departments, and begins to subdivide into different roles before contacting parents. Once parents arrive, children are then reunited with their parents in a calm and safe environment. 

“The purpose of the training is to provide our first responders and our school administrators tools and confidence in the knowledge that we have a process in place,” said Laurie Taylor, Hays County Office of Emergency Services planner. “We’ve got your kids. How to get them safely back to you is first and foremost in our mind.” 

The training itself involved groups of volunteers taking on the roles of parents, staff and children to help mimic the process. 

‘Parents’ were directed to fill out paperwork verifying their given identities, while ‘children’ waited within the gym. Once a ‘parent’ was verified, the ‘children’ would be collected, reunited with the ‘parents’, and then sent on their way. Special care was given to ensure that at no point prior to the reunification did the volunteers playing the role of parents see those playing the role of children, as in a real-life scenario, this could quickly lead to confusion and a systemic breakdown as parents run to meet their children.

“These procedures can be used not only for emergency situations, but with power outages, and with anything else of that nature,” said John-Michael Keyes, founder of I Love U Guys. “If parents become accustomed to that process in a less intense environment, then there is also a certain sense of familiarity when it comes to an emergency situation.” 

Part of the reason why this training occurred was as a way to help prepare for future incidents like the one that occurred at Uvalde earlier this year. 

Keyes created the organization following a school shooting that took the life of his daughter in 2006. Since then, I Love U Guys has gone on to create Standard Responses Protocols (SRP)  that are implemented in over 25,000 schools in the US and Canada.

“When they looked at America, they called it 50 experiments in democracy. For K-12 education, we call it 103 experiments in local control,” Keyes said. “Things like the [SRM] can help in a moment of chaos and emotion… If you look at the process, I would hate to invent it on the spot.” 

While the SRM and SRP are designed with ensuring standardization and a common language across many different schools, they were also made with the idea that each school would vary in needs, size and student bodies. When policy meets protocol, things may change, such as who can pick up what children, and how many volunteers might be placed in certain positions, but whatever the case may be, school districts and other organizations have an approach that all groups are familiar with.

“Everything we do is county orientated. We believe in one protocol,” said Doug Wozniak, principal of San Marcos High School. “A few of us went to one that was identical up in Westlake, and after we participated, we said this would be really cool to bring back to Hays County as another piece to make sure that we’re consistent as a county.” 

To find more information about the SRM and SRP developed by I Love U Guys or to look at a free comprehensive guide published by the organization, visit iloveuguys.org.

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