Should they stay or should they go? Student Release Conundrums

When dealing with emergencies, there are no simple answers.  Everyday circumstances turn into perplexing thoughts and complex discussions between groups of highly educated people.  Yesterday I was asked one of these conundrums, so as any good friend would do, I am dragging you into the conversation in hopes to better prepare you for the day you have to make this decision.

If the world around you is burning to the ground, should you release a student to their parent knowing they won’t survive?

Good liability management tells us that we should get the students off our campuses as soon as possible.  The longer we hold on to them, the more responsibility we take on and the bigger likelihood something can and will go wrong. Handing students over to their parents/guardians is our best and safest option for reducing liability, conserving supplies and surviving the situation.  Not to mention, we as disaster services workers get to go home a little sooner.

But what if your campus is safer than the outside world?  What if riots are happening in the streets?  What if fires are burning, bridges are collapsing, buildings are in shambles and you are completely certain that the parent is not equipped to deal with disaster?  Their chance of survival is slim.

Here’s a few things to consider when making the decision to release a student or keep them.

False imprisonment

Like it or not, holding someone against their will can result in claims of false imprisonment.  Parents and legal guardians have a right to custody of their children, even during a disaster.  Failing to release the student will most likely result in rising  tempers and possible violence.

Child abuse and mandated reporting

Is releasing the student to an unprepared or under-prepared parent a form of child abuse?  Sending a student into a riot situation or a living environment without food and water could be a form of abuse under normal circumstances, but during emergencies a new “normal” sets in.  Most people will be under-prepared and will be in “survival” mode.

Your lack of supplies

If you thought, “Hey, I got an idea.  I’ll invite the parent into our campus.”, then you have even more to think about.  Over the years, I have done a lot of emergency preparedness for schools.  And during those years, I have seen very few and I mean very few, schools who are prepared to handle their own students and staff.  Most schools have a few basic supplies, water and food if they are lucky.  Most of the supplies are outdated or damaged.

Once you invite a parent (and possibly their other offspring) onto your campus, it is now your responsibility to deliver the necessities to them.  Food, water, shelter and the like.  You better make sure that you have enough supplies available to take on additional people.  My guess is you don’t.

Lack of medical care

Just like the need for plentiful supplies, if you ask people to join you on your campus, you will be expected to deal with their medical emergencies as well.  Over the years, school districts have whittled away their nursing staff, leaving staff and students without the professional medical care they could sorely utilize.  You are rolling the proverbial dice when you bring people on your campus.  From peanut to dairy allergies, diabetes, heart conditions, and much more.  While I am not saying you should throw people to the wolves, you certainly better know what you are dealing with and set the expectation of care before they step over the threshold.

Written releases

Dante Jackson, an emergency manager, recommends taking the bull by the horns.  “If you are making this decision during the disaster, then you haven’t prepared.  Being prepared means having thought out all these scenarios before the big one hits.  I tell schools they better have a written release ready for the parents to sign.  Most schools don’t, but the ones I work with do.  It’s a simple release that says you understand that we are not responsible for you or your student once you leave our property, you could die, be maimed, injured or starve to death.  The language is a little nicer than that, but you get the picture.”

The Red Cross

If you already have a contract with the Red Cross to be a disaster site, then some of these decisions are much easier to make and you probably don’t have a choice about who you take or turn away.  If not, then this should be a roundtable topic at your next emergency planning.

What you don’t know

Here’s a word of caution, you can’t judge a book by its cover.  With the gun control debate, hyper sensitivity revolving around bullying and violence, most parents and students are not going to share too much of their emergency preparations with you.  You may never know their level of preparedness and that is in part because people who are well prepared don’t want you to know it. They don’t want people raiding their supplies, they don’t want to fight off looters and they probably don’t have enough to go around.

They just might know more about surviving than you do!

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