‘Tis the Season: PPOs, Custody Orders and the Holidays

As we approach the holidays, visions of turkey and presents and family gatherings all float temptingly in our brains. After all, the last six weeks of the year are all about togetherness, right?

Not necessarily. Separation and divorce can be the exception to that long-held family rule, particularly at this time of the year. Emotions are heightened as we approach the holidays, which carry with them the expectations of shared parenting – and shared schedules.

Parents going through their first set of holidays apart can find themselves in unfamiliar space, jockeying for time with their kids and trying to manage competing schedules. As the acrimony level rises, patience can decline and tempers can flare.

This can be a bad recipe for childcare providers, whose first – and primary responsibility – is to ensure a safe environment for the children in their care. We always see an uptick in bad behavior and schedule struggles at this time of year for our childcare clients and wanted to share some tips that will make November and December easier:

  • Ensure the custody order in place is enforced. We tell our clients never to go on faith and to request a copy of the court order so they can have it on file. Then stick to that order – no exceptions. This eliminates the need for daycare staff to make judgment calls and takes subjectivity out of the equation.
  • Communicate adjustments to the classroom. It’s not enough for the administrative office to understand the custody arrangements. This needs to be communicated to the classroom teachers and aides to ensure they know who can – and who cannot – pick up a child.
  • Enforce PPOs consistently. Personal protection orders can be used like sticks and carrots, punishing bad behavior and rewarding good. We see this often where a mom has taken a PPO order out against a dad, then comes in to tell the office, “He’s been better, it’s OK for him to pick up our child.” This puts the daycare team in the position of being a judge and can create serious liability and safety issues. It’s always best to stick to the order. If a parent pushes back, encourage them to go to court and get it amended.
  • Be ready for events. Year-end can mean a spate of classroom parties, plays and performances that require both parents to appear in the same space at the same time. This can increase the likelihood of volatility and create potentially dangerous situations. We teach de-escalation strategies to our clients so they are equipped to remain calm during parental fireworks and quickly and safely calm all parties.

A Lesson from South Carolina: The Importance of Safety Drills

All eyes were on South Carolina for a few hours on Wednesday as the first words of another school shooting spread across the Internet. But attention quickly faded as details became clear: two children and a teacher wounded, the teenage subject already in custody.

That the incident didn’t linger longer on the national stage is a sad testament to how routine school shootings have become. If there are not “enough” deaths, news like the shooting at Townville Elementary barely makes a blip on our collective radar.

But we can all learn a lot from the teachers, administrators and first responders in that small South Carolina town, who acted quickly and selflessly to protect students and subdue the shooter, who had allegedly shot and killed his father just prior to crashing a pickup truck through the fence outside the school.

Some media reports mentioned that the school had practiced safety drills, but the mention was glossed over. Their advance preparation enabled them to respond appropriately to the incident – and once again underscored the twin mandates of having a plan and then practicing.

The difference in this incident, though, was that the shooter struck outside the school. The playground is a much different situation than the classroom – or a football field or an assembly. We tell our clients that it’s important to think through all the situations where students and teachers gather and prepare to deal with those scenarios.

It’s critical to understand the options available in an active shooter situation like Townville Elementary faced. There are three:

  • Secure: Get behind a locked door or some other type of cover or concealment
  • Evacuate: Get away from the area as quickly as possible
  • Confront: Challenge the threat directly

In the case of Townville Elementary, teachers performed a reverse evacuation, getting students inside as quickly as possible. The volunteer firefighter tackled and restrained the shooter before he could follow everyone indoors.

Training and muscle memory clearly kicked in for both the teachers and the first responders, who quickly assessed the situation and chose the best options available to them. Had they not done so, it’s possible the situation would have escalated – and the headlines with Townville Elementary would continue to haunt us for days.

Rethinking Lockdown: Age-Appropriate Safety Drills

Back to school means new crayons, new backpacks, new teachers, new friends – and new safety drills.

Fire drills have long been a fact of life in our schools. In fact, I dare you to find an elementary classroom where the kids can’t finish this set of commands: Stop. Drop.

Of course the answer is Roll – and of course, that’s what we teach children to do in the event of a fire. Each month, from kindergarten to high school, teachers routinely conduct fire drills. They are engrained in our culture – we conduct fire drills and there’s no fear associated with them.

The same can’t be said of safety drills, though. Increasingly, we are seeing a pushback from schools, teachers and parents who object to practice for sheltering in place or lockdowns. The disparity in response is puzzling – fire can kill as much as gunfire, yet we see a visceral fear when it comes to safety drills that just isn’t there for fire drills.

We are strong advocates for age-appropriate safety drills. It’s less important for kids, particularly younger kids, to understand why they are practicing certain movements than to understand the movements themselves. It’s a case of stimulus-response: When you hear this noise, it means we have to move to this area and be quiet – just as when you hear the fire alarm, it means you have to line up and exit the classroom and then the school quickly and quietly.

When younger kids ask why we are doing a particular drill, it’s OK to be general. We have found it works to tell them that there are some emergencies where to be safe, we have to leave the building – but other times, we have to stay inside to be safe. Framing it as practicing being safe within the classroom is a non-scary way to broach the subject.

Of course, the answer is age dependent. High schoolers will know – and likely have less anxiety over – the reason behind the drills. Even middle schoolers may have some concept of the reasons behind a drill.

For younger children, though, such as daycare, kindergarten and early elementary, safety drills are more designed for teachers to practice and understand the spacing issues. Do all the kids fit in this area? How quickly can I get the door locked?

We recommend that schools practice safety drills at least twice a year. These should consist of:

  • Establishing a simple alert: Schools could use the public address system, but they need to have a back-up of some type, such as an air horn, verbal alert or something that can’t be easily defeated by a technology fail. When it comes to alert, two is one and one is none, so be sure to have a backup.
  •  Recognizing the safe areas of the classroom: We helps schools identify this during the site assessment. They want to pick spots away from doors, our of the line of site from windows and preferably behind a locked or secured door.
  • Understanding what you can physically do: The capabilities of the school will determine the protocol, so it’s critical to understand what the building will and will not do. It’s not enough to say that you have to lock or barricade the door to a classroom – some classroom doors have no locks while others open from the outside. A site assessment will allow teachers to identify the protocol that works best with their facility.

Approaching safety drills in an age-appropriate way ensures students practice the movements they need to respond quickly in a crisis, giving both parents and teachers added peace of mind.