FULTON COUNTY, Ga. – Deaths and injuries in school buildings during severe weather events are rare occurrences, according to emergency management officials. However when it does occur, such as in Oklahoma when seven students died in the collapse of their elementary school May 20, the conversation of how best to keep them safe in school is on the front burner.
In Georgia, officials with the state’s Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) said records are not kept on where people were physically located when tornado deaths occurred, but they cannot recall any deaths in schools in recent years.
“GEMA does not keep statistics on this data and we are not aware of any tornadoes that have damaged schools with children inside,” said Lisa Janak Newman, public information officer for GEMA. “However, Georgia schools have had some close calls recently.”
In January, students at Sonoraville High in Gordon County took cover when a tornado came dangerously close to their school. On April 19, students at Mansfield Elementary in Newton County were in school when a tornado touched down one block from the school.
In 1936, seven children were killed during Georgia’s most destructive tornado in Gainesville, but those deaths occurred in a building downtown where the kids had sought shelter on their way to school.
Since 1999, Georgia state law has mandated all public schools have in place a safety plan that addresses natural disasters, hazardous materials, transportation concerns, weapons and potential terrorist activities.
Newman said these plans must not be made within the education vacuum, but involve input from students, parents, law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services. GEMA provides assistance to school systems as they implement the plans.
“GEMA’s school safety coordinators help schools plan tabletop and full-scale exercises to test written safety plans, and they provide training and technical assistance,” said Newman. “Last year, GEMA’s School Safety Unit conducted 159 training courses.”
Fulton Schools has plans in place
In 2001, the Fulton County School System was one of the first school systems in the state to have its safety plan approved by GEMA. Its emphasis on school safety has been enhanced in recent years with the hiring of Mark Muma as the director of safety and security for Fulton Schools. Muma was previously the school safety coordinator for GEMA.
During severe weather events, Muma said each school monitors its National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio, and the district is in close communication with the Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service.
“Even before the storm system arrives, we’re communicating not only with school-based staff but also our operations, facilities, transportation and athletic departments,” said Muma. “Depending on the proximity of a storm, a school may implement their shelter-in-place protocol based on localized weather conditions.”
Sheltering in place is often a better option than releasing kids early and potentially putting them in harm’s way outside the building.
“While we may consider early release, we have the challenge of working parents who may or may not be home to receive their children,” said Muma. “Based on design and facility requirements, schools are typically safer structures than homes anyway.”
Parents who inevitably show up and try to check out their children during an active storm event are encouraged to come inside the building for everyone’s protection.
“The school is safer than being in their car on the road,” said Muma.
Inside, staff and students go to designated safe areas to wait out the storm, and the school is basically in lockdown.
“Lockdown is typically thought of in reference to intruders,” said Muma. “But we do lock the doors, and staff is in the hallways with students when severe weather approaches.”
Muma cannot recall any incidents involving damage to a school building in Fulton County from severe weather, although there have been several occasions where tornado warnings were issued during school hours.
The idea of “safe rooms” in schools has come up in response to the Oklahoma tornadoes, but Muma isn’t certain it’s the answer – especially when Georgia experiences only about six tornadoes a year on average.
“We can all understand the challenge of building a safe room large enough for the student body and staff,” said Muma. “Our goal is to assist schools in identifying areas within the building that can be used for sheltering.”
Plans are made, for example, to move students from portables to inside the building, avoid exterior walls, utilize interior hallways, sheltering a safe distance away from exterior doors and all windows and avoid sheltering in tall structures such as gymnasiums or auditoriums.
Muma said recent focus has been more on intruders in schools in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings; however he noted all staff members have completed training for severe weather. At a recent training session, Rick Rainer, the principal of a school in Alabama that took a direct hit from an F4 tornado in 2010, was the guest speaker.
“His firsthand experience as a principal made a huge impact on our staff,” said Muma.