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How I Handled...

A Child Who Was
Reported Lost or Missing

In a large school, it is inevitable that a frantic parent will call to report that his child has not made it home from school according to the normal schedule. In order to help keep the parent calm while we get to the bottom of the situation, it is important to have a plan.

The Problem:

In my elementary school of more than 900 students, sometimes a child is “misplaced” during the end-of-day dismissal. The child might end up on the wrong bus, or he might have gotten off the bus and gone home with a friend without parent permission. When that happens, no matter what the reason, things can get frightening and tense until the child is located. There is no time to waste.

The Solution:

Because the adult responsible for the lost child is usually frantic -- or angry -- we developed a plan for handling situations such as this. Our plan can be launched as soon as we get word of a missing child. One of us in the school can keep the responsible adult calm while somebody else follows our plan.

We developed the checklist below based on our past experiences with missing students. We keep this checklist in a special red binder by the phone at our main office desk. If someone calls trying to locate a child after school, the staff member has immediate access to the steps that need to be taken, as well as the phone numbers of those who might be called on to help resolve the situation.


If we receive word that a student has not arrived home safely after school, the person who answers the phone should take the following steps:

  1. Ask the caller the student's name, age, grade, and homeroom teacher's name.
  2. Take the name and phone number of the caller and the name and phone number of a person who will stay by a phone to be the contact person.
  3. Before hanging up, remind the caller to call the school if the child is located.
  4. Check the sign-out sheet in the school office to see if child was picked up early. If the child was picked up, by whom was s/he picked up?
  5. Pull the emergency card for the student.
  6. Pull the child's transportation form to see where s/he should go. How does the child usually get home? Was today a change in routine or has s/he recently changed routines?
  7. Call the homeroom teacher at home to see if s/he knows of any change in routine or any specific after-school plans the child had. Ask the teacher if s/he recalls what the child was wearing that day.
  8. Call principal and assistant principal:
    Principal Name _____________________
    Home Phone: _______________
    Cell Phone: _______________
    Asst. Principal Name: ____________________
    Home Phone: _______________
    Cell Phone: _______________
  9. Check with teachers on bus duty, daycare duty, and car/rider duty.
  10. Call Transportation (Phone: _______________ ) Talk to the bus driver to see if s/he knows where the child got off, who the child was sitting/visiting with on bus
  11. Call the child's friends in the homeroom to see if they know anything.
  12. Call District Security (Phone: _______________ ) Provide a description of the child, the clothing s/he was wearing, and emergency card information.
  13. Drive through the neighborhood; inquire of other children in the neighborhood to learn if any of them might have seen the missing child or know where s/he was going.
  14. Check the student's desk and coat closet to see if anything is unusual. (Is it empty? Were any notes left behind?)

The Reflection:

Our checklist really helps us focus. Having a written plan in place enables staff members to take immediate steps to locate a child even if an administrator is not available at that moment. When parents see that we have a long list of actions we can take, it helps them stay a little calmer.

We encourage the parent/caller to stay put. Parents who are panicked often want to come to the school or start searching the neighborhood; but, if the child is simply on the wrong bus or if someone finds the child, then the parent is not at home when the child arrives late.

When an incident is behind us, we have a written record [the checklist] of the incident. That record enables us to analyze problem areas that might cause these situations to happen. Most of the time, the child went home with a friend, got on the wrong bus, or the "other" parent picked up him/her without telling the spouse or ex-spouse.

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. Each week, members of Education World's How I Handled team share how they solved actual problems relating to school leadership, parent involvement, professional development, and a host of other "principal" responsibilities. How I Handled team members are anonymous; in that way, they can share freely the range of issues/problems they are called on to solve each day.