AUSTIN (KXAN) — For some school districts in Texas, the start of the 2021-22 school year in the next few weeks will mark the largest number of students on campus since March 2020. In the nearly 18 months that have passed since the coronavirus pandemic hit, renewed safety and security protocols rise to the top of priorities for local ISDs.
Westlake High School in Eanes ISD held a school safety summit Wednesday, in collaboration with local law enforcement, fire and other emergency service agencies. The summit focused on reunification process training, or how parents and students are reunited following an emergency incident.
In addition to working with local emergency service entities, Westlake High School partnered with the I Love U Guys Foundation for assistance in its reunification training and school safety measures.
John-Michael Keyes serves as the executive director of the I Love U Guys Foundation. He created the foundation in 2006 after his daughter, Emily Keyes, was held hostage and ultimately killed during a hostage and shooter intrusion in Bailey, Colorado.
The foundation’s name is a symbolic nod to his daughter; while she was held hostage, Emily sent the text message “I love u guys” to her parents.
“Ultimately, we lost Emily that day. But based on her text message, we started a foundation and began looking at school safety,” he said. “And it was really in 2009 that we saw a void. There wasn’t shared common language between students, staff and first responders.”
The foundation introduced the standard response protocol in 2009, which gained traction nationally. Keyes said with the coronavirus pandemic, students and school districts are “rusty” in their safety practices; he said Wednesday’s simulation is designed to dust off some of those cobwebs.
It’s a necessary refresher for students, faculty and parents alike, said Lt. Mike Earley, director of the Austin Police Department’s Austin Regional Intelligence Center.
“For the first time in a year and a half, our students are going to be coming back to campus, and so we’re trying to get school safety back on the forefront of everyone’s minds,” he said. “We want people to be thinking about safety and school safety. These drills are important to get people into that frame of mind again.”
What does reunification look like as a parent?
Westlake High School’s school safety summit was based on a water main break simulation. During the summit, participants were assigned as either a parent, a student or reunification personnel.
To get a better look at the process from a parent’s perspective, KXAN took on the role of a parent seeking to be reunited with their child.
During the simulation, parents were asked to fill out personal information about themselves and their child prior to reuniting with them, to ensure safety and accuracy within the reunification process. In actual emergencies, parents will wait at an off-site facility to be reunited with their child, said Claudia McWhorter, chief communications officer for Eanes ISD.
After parents and guardians have completed the reunification forms, those will be submitted to reunification personnel to log in to the school’s records.
Once forms are logged, parents are required to wait in line. District and safety personnel will call out students’ names as they’re safely brought on site, and parents’ or guardians’ identities will be verified before they are reunited with the student.
Westlake High School student Tenby Werlin is a member of the campus’s community emergency response team and volunteered at Wednesday’s event. She said she really enjoyed learning the different components of various drills and putting them to the test — especially as students are set to return to campus in a few weeks.
“I think it’s important because all these teachers, they keep us so safe but it’s also great for us to know it as students in school,” she said.