Tabletop Exercise 1: Student Hasn’t Returned Home from School. What Would You Do?

Test your school’s emergency response skills with these real-life incidents.

Tabletop Exercise 1: Student Hasn’t Returned Home from School. What Would You Do?

Whether working at K-12 schools, colleges or hospitals, scenario-based training exercises, often referred to as tabletop exercises, are an effective way to improve campus safety and security. They bring together a wide variety of stakeholders and test a school or campus’ emergency plans. It forces people to think without having to be in a real situation where it might be too late.

“A tabletop exercise is a really great get-your-feet-wet kind of way to practice,” says Paul Timm, vice president of Facility Engineering Associates, who has led tabletop exercises at several Campus Safety Conferences. “It is where we can gather the relevant stakeholders around a table and then throw out a scenario and ask those stakeholders to tell us how they would respond given that scenario. We don’t want to fail during a real situation, we want to fail during a simulation, a drill or an exercise of some kind so that we can identify our vulnerabilities and decide how we want to prioritize those.”

If you’re looking to conduct tabletop exercises for your campus but aren’t sure where to start, Guy Bliesner, an analyst for the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security (IOSSS), provided Campus Safety with several incidents that actually happened at Idaho schools in the last five years and how administrators responded. The first scenario is below.

According to IOSSS, the purpose of these trainings are:

  1. To increase awareness and develop an if-then mindset for both building level and district level administrators
  2. To determine if current district and building policy and procedure is adequate to the incident in the exercise
  3. To facilitate the updating of district and school policy and procedure for the types of incidents that may occur in schools

Each scenario sets the scene for the day — some details you might not necessarily think make a difference, but they do — and describes the event in detail, along with the actual outcome of the scenario and findings from an after-action review. They are designed to be completed in 10-15 minutes as part of an administrative meeting.

Scenario #1

  • Season: Early winter
  • Day: Monday
  • Time: 4:06 P.M.
  • Weather: Overcast and heavy snow predicted
  • Temperature: 33 degrees
  • School type: Elementary (K-5)
  • Event: You are taking a deep breath following just one of those days. The phone rings and a distraught mother of a third-grade daughter and a kindergarten son with autism notifies you that her children should have gotten off the bus 20 minutes ago but have not come home. The students in question get off the bus at the last stop on the route. The family is new to the area, and you are aware from student records that there is a custody issue in progress. What would you do?

How the School Handled the Situation

The school secretary had left the building, so the principal took the mother’s phone number with the assurance they would call back very shortly. He then placed a call to the transportation department asking for route and driver information for the students in question. He then called the SRO stationed at the neighboring high school to notify them of a possible issue. The SRO agreed to come to the elementary school. The transportation director pulled the video recording from the parked bus and called the driver of the route in question to meet with the principal, SRO and transportation director at the school.

The principal called the mother to ask what other steps she may have taken and informed her of the steps the school had instituted. The mother noted that she was deeply concerned that her estranged husband had abducted the children. There was a “no contact” order in place, but the mother had not informed the school. This information was conveyed to the SRO upon his arrival at the school a short time later. He began a law enforcement response to the incident. The SRO asked the mother to come to the school to help review the video recording from the bus camera system.

The bus driver and transportation director arrived at the school, and with the principal and SRO, began reviewing surveillance records. The girl and boy in question were observed exiting the bus at the proper stop. Four other students from three other families were observed exiting the bus at the stop as well. The distraught mother arrived at the school at this point. The transportation department had records for the other students assigned to the stop in question and the principal began to call the families. With the second call, the principal determined that the students in question had gone to another student’s home but did not notify their mother.

The mother was both relieved and somewhat angry. Given this, the principal followed the mother’s car to the home where her children were to assure a positive reunification for all parties. The total time elapsed for this incident from the initial notification of the principal was one hour and 13 minutes.

After-Action Review Findings

To be most effective, says IOSSS, an after-action review (AAR) of the response should be completed as part of the process. Questions that should be used to review the response include but are not limited to:

  • Was the response adequate to the magnitude of the incident?
  • Did the response fall within your current policy and procedure?
    • If not, should policy or procedure be changed? Who would be responsible for the change, and what is the timeline?
  • Is any individual, agency or resource tasked as a part of the response aware of their role, trained to act and available?
    • Do you have a memorandum of understanding (MOU)?
  • Is the response capable of translation to operational reality?
  • Was communication adequate to the needs of the response? Was everyone who needed to know notified?
  • Are there public relations concerns in the incident or response, and are they adequately addressed in the solution?
  • Can an operational change be made to mitigate or prevent a future occurrence?

In this case, an AAR of the incident determined everyone involved followed school policy and procedure and the incident was well resolved. The exception is the lack of notification to the school of a “no contact” order. The mother had notified the school at enrollment that there was a custody issue in progress but did not follow up with the school after a “no contact” order was eventually issued.

It is strongly recommended that schools look for ways to establish when “no contact” or other court orders impact school operations.

For more information on ways your school can protect students from child custody disputes, check out this Campus Safety article.

Check Out Some of These Other Tabletop Exercises

Worsening Odor Leads to Student Asthma Attack

Loud Voices, Smell of Alcohol Coming from Main Office

Minivan with 4 Students Rear-ends School Bus

School Loses Power as Temperature Drops

Chemistry Teacher Drops Beaker Containing Mercury

Armed Robber Barricaded in Home Adjacent to School

Third Grade Teacher Collapses During Class

Anonymous Tip Says Student Plans to Bring Weapon to School

Student Goes Into Anaphylactic Shock

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About the Author


Amy is Campus Safety’s Executive Editor. Prior to joining the editorial team in 2017, she worked in both events and digital marketing.

Amy has many close relatives and friends who are teachers, motivating her to learn and share as much as she can about campus security. She has a minor in education and has worked with children in several capacities, further deepening her passion for keeping students safe.

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2 responses to “Tabletop Exercise 1: Student Hasn’t Returned Home from School. What Would You Do?”

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  2. randy says:

    Operational Reality

    Can you tell me what software program (in this scenario) was able to upload and disseminate school bus information in such a rapid fashion? This sounds like a great scenario but uploading downloading and mailing video data usually takes considerable time, is it really plausible? Another aspect is I believe many smaller educational organizations still allow buses to remain at the drivers residence, increasing the driver contact to upload video time.

    The SRO from the elementary should have been contacted and returned to the school as well. This is due to the fact that the HS SRO may not have access/rights (FERPA) to access any of that schools student data such as Power School as well as that school security video software data. Another aspect is that HS SRO may likely have after school programs and need to remain at his/her assigned school.

    Another is a schools administration will not usually have access to private legal court documents. If the administration is not informed (with legal documentation from the courts) by the parent or legal custodian of a student, there is no way for them to know of orders of protection or visitation issues. This aspect is definitely a court and attorney, dissemination of information issue. This is very feasible as they do have access to fax machines as well as email and this can easily be completed within 24 hours or less. However it is usually left to the parent, custodian to inform the educational facility.

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