From Newtown to Oklahoma, how prepared are teachers for a crisis?

McClatchy Washington BureauMay 21, 2013 


Children look at destroyed homes in the aftermath of a huge tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma, Monday, May 20, 2013. At least 51 people were killed, including at least 20 children, and those numbers were expected to climb, officials said Tuesday.


Teachers in Oklahoma are being hailed as heroes for protecting students caught at school when a tornado struck the state on Monday. With more storms crossing the region this week, how prepared are schools and teachers for disaster?

Victoria Calder, the director of the Texas School Safety Center, said that in Texas, the state sets school safety standards and every school district has to develop its own plans for all kinds of hazards and then practice them with drills. Texas plans for natural disasters (including tornadoes, hurricanes and wildfires), for disasters related to technology (such as oil pipeline explosions and train derailments), and human-caused disasters, such as shootings.

"You can't prevent a tornado but you can mitigate by looking at building schools in the first place with structural integrity and with shelters," she said.

Calder has visited some of the state's newest schools and found they had glass walls facing southwest to "Tornado Alley" -- beautiful, but not safe.

"We encourage drills, including for severe weather," she said. But she added that every situation is different, and always a judgment call, especially when children are involved.

"We’re dealing with a vulnerable population that's unable to take care of themselves."

The Texas School Safety Center trains teachers and talks to administrators about requirements for planning and training. Nationwide, 26 states have school safety centers.

Calder said that in 2005 President George W. Bush issued a presidential directive that required schools to adopt a National Incident Management System, which includes planning and drilling. There was funding to help schools, but that federal money is gone now.

However, the federal government does pay for school training, Calder said. The Emergency Management Institute, run by FEMA at Emmitsburg, Md., has a course in multi-hazard planning for schools that it offers at no cost to participants. The state of Kansas recently sent teams from schools and their emergency management system, so that they'd learn how to work together. The U.S. Department of Education also offers technical assistance for disaster planning.

But how teachers react in a crisis can still be somewhat unpredictable.

"Some people are wired to run to the 'pop, pop, pop' and some people are not," she said. "We have to remember that educators did not sign up to be first responders."

But Calder said that time and again it's been shown that in emergencies, people who have drilled immediately do what they're trained to do.

"In an emergency, there's almost an automatic response to do what you've done before," she said.

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