Planning for the unthinkable: Reunifying Berkshire children, parents after a disaster

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Schools drill in lockdowns. They train students to "shelter in place."

But if disaster actually strikes, due to catastrophic weather or violence, how do schools reconnect traumatized children with parents and guardians?

Despite decades of tragedies, that's been a missing piece of the emergency-preparedness puzzle in Massachusetts.

New Berkshires research is helping fill the gap.

Allison Hope, a planner with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, just finished a report on ways schools and day care programs should approach family reunification after disaster.

This spring, the commission and its partner, the Western Region Homeland Security Advisory Council, will advise schools and families throughout the region.

"It's somewhat daunting to figure out how you'll approach family reunification after disaster," said Raine Brown, homeland security program manager for the council, the group that funded Hope's research.

"It's come into people's awareness more that this is an area that needs attention," Brown said.

NEW REPORT

Hope's report, available at berkshireplanning.org, explains steps other states and groups have taken to specify how schools should manage children displaced from school due to disaster, including how to reunite them with guardians.

Fourteen states require that planning. Massachusetts is not one of them.

"Making sure that kids get hooked up with their parents, or taken care of in an appropriate fashion, is one of those things you want to think of," said Nathaniel W. Karns, executive director of the planning commission.

But Hope's research suggests the issue doesn't get its due.

The federal government doesn't order schools to include reunification plans with emergency preparedness drills. While most school districts must practice evacuations and lockdowns, one study found that fewer than a third of them actually hold such drills.

And few have given much thought to how, after removing children from a crisis scene, schools can safely return them to guardians.

Hope said local school leaders she interviewed in connection with her research expressed interest in closing that gap. Her report notes that she conducted in-depth interviews with representatives of the North Adams schools, the Massachusetts State Police and the Berkshire Head Start program.

The complexity of the solution may make some leery of even trying to think through their options, Hope said.

"It could be overwhelming to incorporate this additional process," she said of administrators.

Hope will speak to a national conference in Atlanta at the end of April about reunification planning. She said she plans to offer advice on how municipal and school officials can collaborate with local partners, including police and emergency preparedness personnel.

"The concept is a bit new. It's kind of a hot topic," Hope said.

OFFERING GUIDANCE

To encourage reunification planning, the homeland security council will produce a guide.

Brown said the council reviewed a first draft of a plan last week that drew from Hope's research. It is now building a template on family reunification that can be distributed to schools across Western Massachusetts. The document will be available for free on its website, wrhsac.org.

"They can fill in the blanks according to their entity," Brown said of schools.

One of the key decisions schools and school districts must make is where to gather after a disaster.

And once there, they need ways to manage children under stress. A system Hope details in her report makes use of "kidherds" to help maintain order.

The identifies of arriving parents and guardians must be checked.

Hope's report includes a map produced by a school safety group in Colorado known as "I Love U Guys" that shows ways to organize a reunification assembly. That group was formed by Ellen and John-Michael Keyes after their child was killed in a school incident in 2006.

Being prepared, Hope's report explains, means having "go-kits" ready to equip reunification sites, including signs, tape, cards that parents and guardians can fill out, suntan lotion and a bullhorn with extra batteries.

Families need to be familiar with how their children's schools plan to handle reunification, if a disaster forces schools to close and pupils to disperse.

And they must know details in advance. "Well before any incident, so that parents know what their best actions should be," Brown said.

She said the reunification project grew out of a September 2015 conference on the needs of children in disaster.

After rolling the plan out this spring, the council will promote it through the year, Brown said, seeking to have it adopted by schools around the region.

"We're going to be doing pretty extensive outreach to municipal officials and schools," Hope said.

In a related effort, the council last June guided more than 100 first responders on ways to help children psychologically, when providing them with first aid. The training in Hadley included Berkshires first responders.

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214.


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