Moore, Oklahoma

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families affected by the tornado in Moore, OK.  The Safe Havens team had just completed a site assessment of Norman schools, the first city south of Moore.

The devastation of two elementary schools, Plaza Towers and Briarwood brings the horror home.  We pray that they find more survivors in Plaza Towers, where more students are unaccounted for.

Columbine 13 Years Later

On the 13th anniversary of the Columbine school tragedy, the events of that day remain as present as they did back in 1999.  A new documentary by a student who was at Columbine High School on the day of the shooting reminds us that basic preparedness and crisis stress management are critical if we want to be ready for any level of crisis.  Several years ago another student who was at the shooting directed a film called “April Showers” that gives great insight to what the event felt and looked like for a student that was there.

 I recently keynoted the California Association of School Transportation Officials Annual Conference in Sacramento, California.  As with every state and national pupil transportation conference I have presented at, I found the conference to be dominated by highly motivated and dedicated people who care deeply about students.  As is typical of these types of conferences, I was truly touched by the comments of many of the school bus drivers, transportation supervisors and directors I met.  I was invited to attend the conference banquet and am glad I did.  Several of the attendees at my table shared truly touching comments about the need for school bus drivers to focus on not only the safety of the students they transport each day, but for the need of drivers to serve as role models and mentors to them. 

One story that was disturbing to me fits a pattern with similar stories that have been related to me hundreds of times over the years by school bus drivers, food service personnel, custodians and other support personnel.  Though each situation is different, there is a common theme whether I am in California, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Hawaii, Florida or New York – some school employees view other school employees as low status personnel who are not smart enough to take action.

This particular example is a good one to help school administrators understand just how dangerous arrogance among school employees can be.  After the dinner, the supervisor for a large district related a story from when he had served as a school bus driver.  He was driving a large school bus with seating capacity for 96 students on a field trip to Los Angeles from his community.  He related that there were two other buses and that the drivers were concerned that cars in the downtown area where they were going to park could easily hit students.  The drivers clearly instructed all students to not cross between any of the buses and to use a specific crosswalk to cross the street.  When he stopped a group of students who he saw attempting to cross between two buses and made them go to the proper crosswalk, a teacher challenged him on his actions in front of the students.  He told me that when he explained why he had taken this action and how dangerous it was for the students to cross the street between the buses, the teacher told him that he was “only a school bus driver” and that she wanted the students to cross between the school buses.  Fortunately, he instructed the teacher that she did not have the authority to do this and he insisted that the students cross in the appropriate crosswalk and the students complied. 

I know there are two sides to every story.  But if this situation occurred as it was related to me, there is a serious problem.  To have a teacher countermand a safety procedure of another employee who has more experience in the field is inappropriate.   To publicly do so in front of students without a compelling reason is even worse.  To do so in violation of the law is yet more egregious.  But to do so in a manner that is humiliating and arrogant is really pushing the limits of human decency.  Such actions and attitudes are far too prevalent in school schools.  I witnessed this form of arrogance from time to time and it is truly disturbing.  To assume that a school bus driver is a less important person than a school teacher is nothing short of ignorance combined with arrogance.

On March 2, 2012, in Henryville, Indiana School Bus Driver Angel Perry had eleven kids on her bus ahead of a dangerous tornado.  She was looking for a safe place to shelter her children, and made the decision to return to the school.  On the radio, her voice remained calm as she instructed her kids on how to protect themselves, and got a student count.  Upon arriving at the school, she counted all the children off the bus and was the last person off of her bus.  Three minutes later, an EF4 tornado struck the school, sending her bus flying over 200 feet across a highway into a restaurant.  

Far from being “just a bus driver”, Angel Perry’s actions showed her to be a true professional who put the lives of her children ahead of her own.  She is a fine example for any teacher to emulate.  This is a great reminder that we all need to work together and not forget to include everyone in our planning and training efforts.

Note: This blog has been posted for Michael Dorn while he is in a rural region of Mexico with no internet or phone service. He may be delayed in responding to e-mails relating to this blog.

What Does “Best Possible Shelter” Mean for School Tornado Sheltering?

Guest blog by Steve Satterly

Imagine for a moment that you find yourself in the ring with Iron Mike Tyson. He’s glaring at you, growling, and there is menace in his eyes. Then you hear the bell. Now, I don’t know about you, but even after 12 years in the Infantry, I would run like heck. As my mother didn’t raise any fools. I think that most rational people, faced with this situation, would do the same.

Now let’s change the scenario a bit. You have kids behind you, and you think he wants to hurt them (he doesn’t, but let’s go with it). You have the choice of running and leaving your children, begging for your (and their) life, or doing the best you can to protect them.

Facing a tornado is very similar to this analogy. On your own, you can most likely run for your life. Add people you are responsible for to the situation – and the decision-making changes. No one since Pecos Bill can defeat a tornado. All you can do is the best you can do. Given your responsibility to the people in your care, it is important you know what “the best you can do” is.

Many schools do not have the luxury of having a FEMA certified storm shelter with which to protect their children. They can be expensive – especially if you do a retrofit, alter existing construction to a new form, or build an addition. In FEMA publication P-431 “Tornado Protection: Selecting Refuge Areas in Buildings”, a process is described by which schools can identify “best available refuge areas”. These are areas in an existing building that have been designated by a qualified architect or engineer as a place likely to offer the greatest protection in the event of a tornado. Since these areas are not “safe rooms”, there is a possibility that people in those areas may be hurt or killed during a tornado. However, these “best available refuge areas” make such casualties less likely than in other areas of the building.

I am not an architect – nor am I an engineer. I have studied tornado mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery extensively. I have been through an EF3 tornado at a school myself. I have also seen for myself the damage to schools by EF4 tornadoes. This gives me the opportunity to let you know about some of the resources I have found, such as FEMA P-431. This can be found at http://www.fema.gov/library/ as well as other resources, which are free. If you cannot hook up with an architect or engineer, invite your local Emergency Management Director to walk through your building with you and use his or her expertise. Don’t do it alone – and don’t just take the word of some guy on the internet (even me!).

Take the time to do it right – because there is too much at stake.

Steve Satterly is the Director of School Safety and Transportation at the CSC Southern Hancock County in East Central Indiana. He is a survivor of an EF3 tornado on September 20, 2002. He is a certified Indiana School Safety Specialist with more than 75 hours of FEMA training. He is currently working toward a Master’s Certificate in Homeland Security through the School for Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. The author welcomes questions, other viewpoints and any comments at satterly.steve@att.net.