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Superintendent says district is working on safer parent-student reunification methods in case of emergencies

When a threat was called in against Gervais and Woodburn schools in February, word spread quickly on social media. Many parents heard about the threat from their children before the schools were able to respond.

Gervais issued a lockout order, while Woodburn alerted parents to the threat by email, autodialer and Facebook, and assured them that it was not a credible threat. Still, many parents wanted more information about the incident, and many arrived on campuses throughout the Woodburn district to take their children home for the day.

Woodburn School District hosted a safety forum in March to listen to parents' concerns about the incident and received fierce criticism from parents who said it took hours for the district to notify them. Other parents criticized the district for not having a dedicated employee to communicate directly in case of emergencies.

Now the district is looking at ways to improve its communication with parents and a draft proposal for an information campaign will be presented at the next Woodburn School Board meeting April 19, according to Woodburn Superintendent Chuck Ransom.

Ransom said that the instantaneous nature of social media made it difficult for schools to stop the spread of rumors and panic.

"We are seeing that a threat can become more widely known by students than staff, and that we're often the last in the chain to know," Ransom said.

"If we put an individual school in lockout, it's just a matter of seconds before students start texting other students at other schools. … Accurate information is really challenging to get out," he said.

Ransom said the biggest communication challenge the district faces is ensuring parents that schools are well prepared to respond to an emergency situation.

Woodburn School District has a detailed emergency response plan for threats from inside and outside the school and evacuation procedures in case of fire or natural disaster. Emergency procedures are based on a national program and well-rehearsed by staff and students, Ransom said.

The school district also received a bond in 2015 that was sought in large part to fund safety improvements including security cameras and remodeling of school entrances with electric locking double doors.

"The community was not aware of what we had in place and what parents' role is," Ransom said.

Ransom said that parents rushing to school to pick up students represented a safety hazard, and that the school district needed to address how parents can be reunified with their children after an emergency.

Woodburn High School was able to evacuate and reunify parents and students in 2012 when the school caught fire: Students were picked up by bus and taken to the parking lot of Woodburn Legacy Health Center, where parents picked them up.

"We know we have most pieces in place, we just need a location to do it so we are not looking around at the last minute," Ransom said.

The district is working with partners in the community to find a large space such as a church or civic center where students can be evacuated and parents can pick them up.'

"Parents want to be physically present to protect their student, it's perfectly understandable, and I would want to protect my child. But we can't have hundreds of parents filling the parking lot with their cars if we did have a situation and needed emergency services to have access," he said.

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