Duval School Board votes in favor of plan for emergency family reunification

Established procedures to respond to a school closure from a natural or man-made disaster are required under 2022 state law

The Duval County School Board on Monday night voted in favor of a critical new plan designed to help students and parents in case of a mass casualty event on a school’s campus.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Duval County School Board on Monday night voted in favor of a critical new plan designed to help students and parents in case of a mass casualty event on a school’s campus.

Following the passage of House Bill 1421 (2022) each Florida school district was required to develop and adopt a “family reunification plan” in order to more efficiently get students and employees back together with their loved ones in the event a district school has to be evacuated because of a natural or manmade disaster.

The plan was developed in training sessions with security contractor “Raptor Security” which included a group of school staff representatives from almost every school in the district, along with big groups of volunteers who were standing in for parents and students.

A 59-page draft of the plan outlines the command structure, a comprehensive geographical strategy for site utilization and a list of established roles and who will fill them.

The plan applies to natural disasters like severe storms or hurricanes, as well as a ‘man-made’ disaster like a mass shooting or bomb threats. The plan involves intensive training exercises to make sure it works efficiently and effectively--even though, it’s hopefully never used.

“My kids experienced a lockdown in elementary school. I had a visceral reaction. I literally thought I was going to throw up,” said Katie Hathaway, a Jacksonville mother whose children are now in middle school.

She said when her children went through the lockdown, it was a terrifying experience.

That’s why Greg Burton, the school district’s police chief, says every school has an individualized reunification plan and students will only be released to specific legal guardians that the schools will have on record.

The hope is the plan will never have to take effect, but if there is a mass casualty incident at a Jacksonville school, the district will be prepared.

“Fortunately, we have a very robust and good communication system here at the district and they will be alerted by various means either telephone or email or text message,” Burton said. “If an event happened on campus, reunification starts right then and there.”

In June, we took you inside the live “run-through” rehearsals by district staff, volunteers and representatives from Raptor Technologies, one of the district’s security contractors.

David Rogers with Raptors Technologies said, “Whenever you have a reunification event. And if you think about it, if you have 1000 kids at at a high school, you’re going to have three to 4000 people show up to pick them up. So it’s kind of like throwing a concert, but like, you know, all of a sudden, impromptu. And so you have to think about how do we handle traffic? How do we, you know, you don’t want the kids and the parents using the same bathrooms? How do we handle water?”

The plan begins with a clear command structure, and narrowly defined roles and responsibilities. This is an area where the emergency response was heavily criticized in the May 24 shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. More than 350 law enforcement personnel responded, but there was still a lack of defined leadership.

The plan also outlines where those reunifications will happen, namely other nearby district schools. The district is split into six individual hubs, or groupings of schools that are near one another.

For example, if Sandalwood High School needed to be evacuated, the district would already know that the evacuation site would be either Mayport Middle School or Fletcher High School.

With part of the critical decisions and plans laid out, the district can more quickly respond if disaster strikes.

“So it really helps solve a problem,” Rogers said. “Particularly one as you noted that it can be kind of chaotic, if you don’t have something to help you really manage.”

Finally, the plan addresses one of the most vital and difficult factors in an emergency -- communication. It includes a full, step-by-step breakdown of how the Raptor app will assist teachers in alerting the district to a disaster event, and how it will help guide parents and staff through the process of matching families back together.

About the Authors:

Joe covers education and breaking news. He is a frequent contributor to the News4Jax I-team and Trust Index coverage.

Specializes in Clay County issues, general assignment reporting and stories off the beaten path and anchors weekend evening newscasts.