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How I Handled...

Tracking Down Relatives
In an Emergency


Each week, members of Education World's How I Handled team share how they handled actual problems relating to school leadership, parent involvement, professional development, and a host of other "principal" responsibilities. This week, learn how one of our principal problem solvers was able to track down relatives when an emergency occurred and only local contacts were listed on the emergency card.

The Problem:

A mother of two students had just left the school. Three blocks away, she ran into a truck and died at the scene. The mother was a Navy wife; the father was deployed overseas on a wartime secret detail. The two children -- a kindergartner and a second grader -- had no nearby relatives. We had a local emergency contact, but no additional information to help us contact immediate family.

The Solution:

Soon after the accident, the Sheriff arrived to seek our help in locating family members and to inform the children of the loss of their mom. We notified a neighbor who was able to go to the morgue to identify the body. We notified the teachers of the two children. We had no phone numbers for the grandparents, so we used the Internet to locate a grandparent (the father’s father) who worked at an auto parts store; the sheriff’s department sent a deputy to the store to inform the grandfather of the accident. The grandfather provided contact information for the other set of grandparents who lived out of state. After numerous calls, we learned the Red Cross would be our best bet to notify the dad. We verified the nature of the emergency for military personnel, so he would be flown home immediately. Our state’s Children and Family Services department informed us they would take the children since there were no family members. I explained the situation and argued that it would not be right for the children to go with a stranger. I asked the neighbor to take the children until the father returned. Children and Family Services went to the check out the neighbor’s home. Next, we called the children into our conference room to notify them just before dismissal time. I was present with the sheriff department’s counselor, the teachers, the neighbor, and our guidance counselor. It was a very difficult time, to say the least. The children asked about their father, and I told them he would be home soon. One of the teachers told the children that it was OK to cry. After many tears, the children calmed down. They did not want to leave the school; it was a safe place and, at that moment, the only family they had. We kept them until the early evening, when we knew it was all right for them to wait at the neighbor’s house. The grandparents arrived soon after that, and the dad was able to get home at midnight.

The Reflection:

Schools need to have more than local contacts listed on their emergency cards. This event also was a reminder that educating children is just a small part of our job. We learned that the Red Cross can be a great help contacting anyone in an emergency, and that our local sheriff’s department has excellent grief counselors.

About the How I Handled... Team of Principal Problem Solvers
The How I Handled... series is intended to be practical resource for all principals and principals-to-be. Six principals comprise our problem-solving team. This team of hard-working and reflective principals remains anonymous; in that way, they can share freely the range of issues/problems they are called on to solve each day. The series also illustrates the wide range of skills today's principals are required to possess. Two members of the team are elementary school principals, two work at the middle level, and two are high school principals.