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Preparing for an emergency, educators undergo reunification training

Bonnie Modzelewski, left, from the Kent ISD early childhood center, goes through the reunification exercise as a parent looking to pick up her son

Kent ISD — Kent ISD Director of Safety and Security Sean Burns stood outside of a local church last month, instructing school staff and officials in preparation for a reunification training exercise — the process in which students are reunited with their parents after being evacuated and transported to an offsite location due to an emergency.

Kent ISD partnered with the Michigan State Police (MSP) to host the March training, with the primary goal of creating a standardized system of reunification across Kent County. 

“Having everyone follow the same procedure makes it easier for parents, school staff and the students,” Burns said.

The two-day event was led by the “I Love U Guys” Foundation, a nonprofit known for its crisis response and post-crisis reunification. Started by Ellen and John-Michael Keyes, whose daughter was killed in a 2006 hostage crisis in Colorado, the foundation’s Standard Response Protocol and Standard Reunification Method are used in more than 50,000 schools and other organizations around the world. 

Burns said for the 2023-2024 school year, the Michigan State Police Department has hosted seven training sessions with the “I Love U Guys” Foundation. 

One of the goals of the training, said Region 1 Safety Coordinator John Wittkowski, was to have staff from various school districts attend. The hope is that if one district experiences an emergency, a neighboring district could step in and run the reunification process while the district dealing with the emergency could focus on that.

Approximately 75 people — “a mix of school staff, administrators, building personnel, principals and other staff,” Wittkowski said — attended the training, which “I Love U Guys” representatives indicated was a good number for a reunification exercise.

Walking Through the Process

Most think of the need for reunification as being the result of an active shooter, but this process can be used for any emergency when a building is not safe, including a water main break or a severe weather event, said Jason Kelley, an adjunct professor with “I Love U Guys.”  

On the first day of the training, participants learn about Standard Response Protocol, the Standard Reunification Method and crisis communications. On the second day, participants head to a reunification site to practice what they have learned. 

“We like to see what a school or organization is doing, where their site is and to go through the process to see how we can tweak it to make it better,” Kelley said.

In the reunification process, students are brought to a designated offsite location when an emergency occurs. At that location, students are cared for by staff and trusted adults such as police officers, firefighters, school nurses and social workers. 

Parents and guardians are notified through school communications where they may go to pick up their child, Kelley said. At the reunification site, these adults move through a series of stations, during which their photo IDs are checked and the reunification team confirms their student is on site and ready to be picked up. 

Before reunification, students are asked to confirm that the adult is their parent or guardian and that they feel safe leaving with this person, Kelley said.

“The process is designed to move parents through the building,” he said. “There is one entrance with parents moving through the building in one direction, picking up their children while moving toward the exit at the other side of the building.”

Consistency and Understanding

Godwin Heights Safety Supervisor Jeff Wainwright said his goal in attending the training was to learn how his district might be able to streamline their reunification process. 

“Through the training, you know what to expect,” Wainwright said, noting that Godwin Heights has two offsite reunification locations. “It really helps in (understanding) who needs to be at incident command, the structure of roles and the response all help to make the process smoother.”

Forest Hills Transportation Director Darryl Hofsta said he, too, found the training helpful.

“By being able to walk through the process, we are able to identify where we need to go for our plan,” said Hofsta, who added he hopes to have a district-wide reunification training someday.

Caledonia Assistant Superintendent Darrell Kingsbury agreed that a district-wide training would be beneficial to help staff understand the reunification process and all of its procedures. He said he felt having all the districts in Kent County follow the same standard reunification method will bring consistency and understanding of expectations.

“The process was very smooth,” Mike Gelmi, principal at Grandville’s Central Elementary School, said of the training. “I took a lot of notes so that I can take what I have learned back to my district so that we can build our process to be a lot better.”

Read more from Kent ISD: 
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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma is a reporter covering Kent ISD, Godwin Heights, Kelloggsville, Forest Hills and Comstock Park. The salutatorian for the Hartland Public Schools class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism. Joanne moved to the Grand Rapids area in 1989, where she started her journalism career at the Advance Newspapers. She later became the editor for On-the-Town magazine, a local arts and entertainment publication. Her eldest daughter is a nurse, working in Holland, and her youngest attends Oakland University. Both are graduates from Byron Center High School. She is a volunteer for the Van Singel Fine Arts Advisory Board and the Kent District Library. In her free time, Joanne enjoys spending time with her family, checking out local theater and keeping up with all the exchange students they have hosted through the years. Read Joanne's full bio


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