DUPAGE COUNTY - As the new school year gets underway, some parents and educators are thinking about safety. One area in particular is making sure parents and students can find each other after a crisis occurs.
As Lamar High School students in Arlington, Texas, returned from spring break last March, a parent's worst nightmare began to unfold.
A shooting on the school's front steps. One student was dead, and another injured.
"My son has been crying on the phone to me, they would not let me get to him. I've been trying to get to him since seven o'clock this morning it is now twelve-thirty," a mother said after the shooting.
After placing the school on lockdown and notifying parents, administrators began what’s called the student reunification process.
As buses brought students to the district's athletic and performing arts center, a long line of parents began to form, and so did the wait.
"Nobody's getting out. I've been in line. Nobody's moving. Nobody's coming out. This is a mess," the same mother said.
That’s the situation DuPage County is trying to keep from happening here.
It was not your typical day at Addison School District Four. At Ardmore Elementary, law enforcement and school administrators were not only testing how well they respond to a school emergency, but also their ability to respond with medical care and aftercare.
"When we started training with this reunification plan, we found that we need lots of and lots of staff who are trained," said John Heiderscheidt,
Heiderscheidt is the head of DuPage County's School Safety Task Force.
Earlier this year, that task force along with the DuPage County State's Attorney’s Office and the Regional Office of Education announced the formation of DuSMART — or the DuPage County School Mutual Aid Response Team.
"This is for schools. So reunification, for instance, is something that really the schools are in charge of. Getting students out safely, and everything that goes with it. Including counseling services," said Robert Berlin, DuPage County State’s Attorney.
Much like local police and fire departments, DuPage is now the only county with a mutual aid agreement among its public school districts to send additional support to a school when a crisis occurs.
One of the main jobs for those extra helping hands is carrying out the process to reunite parents with students in the aftermath.
"An impacted school district is going to be limited in their ability to have those staff available. They (the staff) might have students in the school where it occurred. They might be their friends, their family," Heiderscheidt said.
Re-connecting parents and students immediately following a crisis of any kind is not an easy job.
"The difficulty comes in the emotional impact of the folks we are serving. When this would happen, that’s the real difficult part. What we’re all having to go through that we never want to have to go through," Heiderscheidt said.
The job involves talking to stressed out parents, but even more.
"We have to receive parents. Check parents in. Check their IDs. Check their information against the student information system to make sure they are who they say they are and they can have access to the student, according to what the school records indicate," Heiderscheidt said.
Once school staff has confirmed the parent does have a child on-site to pick up, they do one more check.
"That training also dictates that we ask the student before we turn them over to the parent: are you ok? Is it ok for you to go home with this person? Who is this to you?" Heiderscheidt said.
There’s a lot to do in a short amount of time.
"If you’re not preplanned and prearranged, it’s going to take time and that’s what we don’t have," Heiderscheidt said.
There’s also little room for error.
"It’s probably a long-term memory for parents that even in this tragic situation, it still took a really long time for me to get my child back," Heiderscheidt said.
"Well, I think it’s a good system right now, but it can be better. We’re looking to continually improve that," said Ron Wilke.
Wilke is on the DuSMART advisory panel and the School Safety Officer for Indian Prairie District 204.
We caught up with him at Metea Valley High School in Aurora.
"So if you can imagine a school the size we’re in here with three-thousand students. Double that for the parents that might show up to pick them up. And take into account the staff that are actively watching those students. You can see how many people might be needed for a reunification effort," Wilke said.
He says some incidents that may occur could be too large-scale for any district to handle on their own.
"So eventually how this will all happen is there will be a 24/7 number that anyone that requests us can call. And then whatever resources they request will be sent out to the group as a whole," Wilke said.
He says the DuPage County Office of Emergency Management then puts out a call to all the school districts to see who can respond. Each district will have one or two employees who have been trained to respond.
Over the last few months, Wilke says hundreds have been trained at different schools throughout the county so they will be familiar with those settings in a crisis.
"School safety is one of the most important things that we do. And we cannot take it for granted and we know that we cannot afford to make one mistake," Berlin said. "That’s how important this is."
There are 42 school districts in DuPage County. Its safety task force says 34 of them have already signed the DuSMART agreement and expects to have all districts signed on just after the school year starts.