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Jennifer Johnson, Forum News Service, Published September 24 2013

ND, Minnesota among states that don't require basic disaster plans for children

GRAND FORKS – North Dakota and Minnesota are among 28 states that do not require schools and child care providers to have basic disaster plans for children, according to a recent report by Save the Children.

The report says that states should require K-12 schools to have disaster plans that address multiple hazards and specific responses to each. They should also require child care providers to have disaster plans that address the evacuation of children, the reunification of families and the special needs of disabled children.

North Dakota law only requires the evacuation plan. Minnesota law only requires a family reunification plan and multi-hazard plan. It’s possible that some or all schools and child care providers have their own plans, but the report focuses on whether states require such plans.

Save the Children, an independent group, was part of a presidential commission that studied how disasters affect children after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. The National Commission on Children and Disasters concluded that the four state standards are essential for basic disaster preparation.

Protection

Despite not meeting the commission’s specific standards, North Dakota law still protects children during a disaster, officials say.

The state Department of Public Instruction’s school health and safety guidelines, for example, require each school to implement a plan for a “safe, caring and respectful school culture and climate,” which covers emergency plans and child protection.

Jody Thompson, assistant superintendent of Grand Forks Public Schools, said the district has a plan to respond to a gunman and a plan for students with special needs.

Each campus has a family reunification plan, too.

At the relocation area, police and school staff would use a roster to match students with families, Thompson said. Parents would have to provide identification unless school officials knew them personally, he said.

“In a crisis situation, we want to be able to say, ‘Your wife picked up your son and daughter at 2 p.m.’ to alleviate some concerns of parents,” he said.

Thompson declined to provide details on the district’s emergency plans, saying he wanted to maintain a level of security.

At the state level, the Department of Emergency Services uses federal grants to train teenagers for response teams at schools to handle emergencies, said spokeswoman Cecily Fong.

The state is also working on a protocol to help school officials respond to gunmen because these incidents have become more frequent around the nation, she said.

“It’s better to get on board beforehand, because it doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen here,” she said.

No data

At the state Department of Public Instruction, there is no way to know how prepared schools are because school districts aren’t required to report to the state if they have disaster plans, according to Valerie Fischer, state director of safe and healthy schools.

Schools that don’t have disaster plans aren’t punished.

Lockdown drills and fire drills are the only requirements.

“I don’t want to say it’s a fault of Century Code and policymakers, but sometimes it’s frustrating because we don’t have that authority to collect that data,” Fischer said.

If the data could be collected, she said, the DPI could help school districts avoid plans that don’t work well and provide more resources and technical assistance.

On the Web: To see the Save the Children report, go to bit.ly/178a6lI.