Waiting in the Wings: Reunification focus of two-day CSSS workshop

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June 9, 2022 by HCDE-Texas

A standing ovation closed out The Center for Safe and Secure Schools’ (CSSS) two-day reunification exercise on Tuesday at the Goose Creek Consolidated Independent School District (GCCISD). 

Operation SRM-Rex (Standard Reunification Method-Reunification Exercise), held for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, brought together over 110 education and emergency management professionals from regional school districts and charter schools, law enforcement, and public health officials. 

Facilitated by the “I Love U Guys” Foundation, the hands-on workshop provided attendees the opportunity to learn or improve upon how to safely reunify students with their parents or guardians during crisis situations. 

Planning for the exercise began in September 2021.  

“I’ve been told we have more than 100 participants, which makes this one of the largest events of the year for us,” said HCDE Superintendent James Colbert Jr. “I want to stress that these are folks who signed up prior to all the tragic events that happened in Uvalde. Educators take this issue extremely seriously and spend a tremendous amount of time training. Today’s exercise demonstrates that.” 

The CSSS, a division of Harris County Department of Education (HCDE), has partnered with federal, state, and local entities since 1999 to develop increased safety and security strategies, standards, and best practices for K-12 school environments for both students and educators.  

Harris County Department of Education superintendent James Colbert Jr welcomes attendees to a reunification exercise at Goose Creek ISD, June 6, 2022.

“School safety is a priority in all districts, but it’s sometimes put on the backburner until a tragic event happens. It’s so important to be proactive and not reactionary when we talk about safety,” said CSSS Director Julia Andrews. “This is the time of year when districts go over their emergency operations plans. They’re opening new schools; they’re hiring new staff. It’s an ideal time to get them trained on what to do.”  

“The whole goal is to try to magnify all this information, collaborate, and get stronger as educators so we can protect our children,” said Colbert. “I look at these trainings like, ‘athletes have to train.’ It’s one thing to know it, but it’s another to practice it.” 

Over the course of the two-day event, attendees were trained on the Standard Response Protocol and the Standard Reunification Method. They also explored case studies on school emergency incidents from across the country and took part in various mock reunification exercises.  

“If you ask somebody about their three greatest challenges in a crisis, often they say communication, communication, communication,” said John-Michael Keyes, the executive director for the “I Love U Guys” Foundation and workshop leader. “What the standard response protocol does is give students, staff, parents and first responders a common language and common expectations of what to do in a variety of crises.” 

As part of the exercises, participants engaged in active role-playing, adopting and cycling through the roles of students, parents, reunification team members, and other key players. This practice allowed participants to gain perspective on how everyone’s roles during an emergency event impact the effectiveness of overall response and reunification efforts and sheds light on areas for improvement within those efforts.  

Gulf Coast Center Director of Special Projects Amanda Groller, who played an instrumental role in the recovery stage of the Santa Fe High School shooting, emphasized that the workshop also afforded attendees the opportunity to get to know each other.  

“Gulf Coast Center has responded to natural disasters and manmade incidents, including mass casualty,” she said. “Having worked a variety of disasters in my career, we know that one of the most important things is building relationships right away.” 

Abel Narvaez, the director of operations and grounds for GCCISD, where the training was held, agrees.  

“This gives us the opportunity to meet some people that are going through or trying to plan some of the same things,” he said. “Just talking with each other when we’re doing exercises has given us an opportunity to share some ideas and ask some things like ‘what do you guys do in this situation?’” 

For Narvaez, the training is the missing element in his district’s emergency operations planning.  

“Leading up to this event, we talked about how we could prepare our district if this happened. So, we volunteered to host this so we could prepare our own leadership team,” he said. “We had the process, we had the tools, and now we have the implementation if and when it does happen.”  

“I’m proud that Goose Creek hosted. We had a lot of people come, including from some districts that are far away,” said Narvaez. “It just shows that we’re all in this together. We’re all here to learn from each other to make sure that we do what we can to keep our kids safe.”

To learn more about HCDE’s Center for Safe and Secure Schools, visit hcde-texas.org/safe-secure-schools.

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