Para leer este articulo en español, haz clic aquí.
Logan • The first yellow school bus arrived at the Cache County Event Center about a quarter past noon. Ten more followed — a fleet large enough to transport around 800 children from their elementary school approximately 7 miles away.
Kids poured out of the buses, walking single-file, hand-in-hand. Some of them about the size of the black tires they passed by, giggling or shrieking as they headed into the event center. It seemed like the queue to a museum for a field trip until a teacher gave instructions, reminding everyone why they were there on that sunny Friday afternoon.
“Guys,” she said, “Hold hands. We’re practicing like it’s real.”
The “it” — the circumstance that forced this faux-evacuation — was not clear. It could have been any kind of emergency: a tornado, an earthquake, a bomb threat, maybe a biohazard of some kind. Maybe an active shooter.
District officials were purposefully vague because they didn’t want to scare anyone. Cache County School District spokesperson Tim Smith said the drill was about preparedness — learning how to get kids from “where the event happened” to somewhere else, then back with their parents or guardians.
School shootings are still considered rare. But as they happen more frequently, educators have increasingly turned to trainings like these to prepare for disaster scenarios.
Smith said this training — three days after the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas — was the district’s first reunification drill, following an active-shooter training they did (without students) at a high school last July. More are planned in central Utah’s North Sanpete School District later this summer.
While research has shown that simulation-based active shooter drills can traumatize both children and teachers — and there’s little proof that they save lives — experts say reunification training can help.
North Sanpete Superintendent Nan Ault scheduled the district’s upcoming Aug. 9 exercise well in advance of the Texas shooting, but seeing the news reinforced why schools should prepare for a similar tragedy, she said. A plan brings order to the chaos.
“There’s a very structured process that allows us to identify all students and safely get kids to parents,” she said, “and calm people down and support them.”
Preparation is key
John-Michael Keyes, the executive director of a foundation that develops such trainings and resources for schools, said children and school staff can prepare for emergency situations “without creating drama, trauma or fear,” just like they’ve done for years with fire-safety messaging.
Keyes founded the I Love U Guys Foundation with his wife after their daughter, Emily, was killed in a 2006 Colorado school shooting. Their group developed the widely used “Standard Response Protocol” for how students and teachers should respond during an emergency, and in 2012 released a model for reunification after a crisis.
“When you do a fire drill, you don’t light trash cans on fire in the hallway,” Keyes said. “What we’re doing is creating the muscle memory.”
“Similarly,” he continued, “why do we teach kids to stop, drop and roll?”
It’s so they know what to do if they find themselves on fire, Keyes said — a terrifying circumstance to consider, yet kids learn those three directives and seem to move on without trauma.
A Washington Post database shows there have been 337 school shootings since 1999, and 185 deaths. More children died in fires every year between 2010 and 2019, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.
Yet unlike the child fire mortality rate, school shootings are increasing. The Post reported 42 school shootings in 2021 — a significant uptick compared to the nine in 2020 and the 27 in 2019. After the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, last month, there have already been 24 shootings and 28 killed so far this year. All but seven were killed at the Texas elementary school, according to the Post database.
The shootings scare parents and educators, perhaps pushing them to act quickly to prepare in case their school is next. But some of these changes aren’t proven to reduce shootings, said Amanda Klinger, director of operations for the Educator’s School Safety Network, a nonprofit that provides safety training and resources to schools.
Metal detectors don’t seem to help. Security cameras are useful to see what’s going on at a school, but they don’t do anything to prevent a shooting, she said. Entry buzzers are only effective if the person operating them stays diligent, and a bullet fired at the buzzer could nullify the entire system.
But reunification trainings, if done correctly, do seem to help, Klinger said.
The difference? Switching from a scenario-based approach to a skills-based approach, she said. Instead of asking kids to consider what they’d do if someone entered their school with an assault rifle, you ask them to think about how they’d get out of the school quickly if something dangerous happened.
That general approach is better for everyone, Klinger said, because schools do face myriad safety concerns. An Educator’s School Safety Network analysis of violent threats at U.S. schools between 2018 and 2019 showed 6% involved an active shooter. The most common “threat,” happening in 18% of cases, was a false report. After that, it was a gun found, then a thwarted plot.
“When we only focus on active-shooter response, schools can take their eye off of the other concerns and the other lower-level violence prevention initiatives,” Klinger said, “and it actually makes schools less safe.”
Reunification training in practice
Before children got out off their buses during the reunification drill in Cache County, sheriff’s office Lt. Mikelshan Bartschi climbed aboard one and introduced himself.
“Hello, friends,” he said enthusiastically. “My name is Mikelshan, and I’m going to get you off this bus, OK?”
He told them to walk in a straight line and hold hands with the person in front of them, and behind them — that way they don’t leave anybody behind. They also needed to stay in between their teachers, he said.
“I feel like a pre-schooler,” one student lamented soon after exiting. Another boy tried to help, telling him, “It’s a handshake.”
It took about 20 minutes to unload everyone and lead them into the event center’s exhibit hall, an open 20,000-square-foot space sometimes reserved for conventions or weddings. Students waited there for their parents, sitting on the ground and talking, or watching the Mickey Mouse cartoon playing on a projector screen.
Directly opposite the students, across the street from the event center, parents began to arrive in the parking lot. Volunteers helped them navigate in and out. Crossing guards shepherded them across the relatively quiet street.
Parents then checked in at what Smith called the “request gate,” where they filled out a form asking to get their child. A team of volunteers matched the information on each form to the student information system, then someone verified with the student that whoever was there to pick them up was who they say they are.
Each child was then escorted out of the waiting area and reunited with their parents. After one final checkpoint, they walked out the doors, crossed the street to the parking lot and headed home.
Curt Jenkins, a director of student services, said the district learned a lot through the drill. He thinks the district will need more volunteers in the event of an actual emergency, but they did nail down where exactly to park all the buses.
“That’s why you do drills,” Jenkins said, adding that in the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting, Friday’s exercise “had a much deeper meaning” for everyone involved.
It did seem surreal — a woman started to cry that afternoon, waiting for her two sons outside the exhibit hall. School district spokesman Smith saw her and said he empathized. He got an adrenaline rush when the district ran its first large-scale, active-shooter drill last year.
“It was like, ‘I know this isn’t real, but I’m feeling it,’” he said.
Outside, that parent, Karen Hansen, stood by her sons Jay and Sye and said coming to the center, seeing the police cars, going through this whole process — it made her emotional.
“The things is, this could possibly happen to them someday,” she said, apologizing as her voice broke. “I just know that I want them to be safe. I want them to learn that this is something that they may have to go through, and even though it’s not easy, it’s needed.”
One of her sons knew a boy who allegedly texted a gun threat to another student at one of the district’s middle schools two days prior. That, combined with the recent Texas shooting, made her see the possibility that gun violence can happen at her kids’ school.
“Sadly, our day has come where we have to be more precautious and do things we didn’t do growing up,” Hansen said.
The Cache County student was taken into custody and authorities never found that he had access to a gun, Smith said. The Cache County Sheriff’s Office did not provide an update on the case.
Jay, who’s 10, said the drill did make him feel more prepared.
“Something could happen to the school…but then you evacuate, and just come here,” he said. “We know where there’s a place that’s safe.”