Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Henryville Tornado Can Teach Schools Lessons In Emergency Preparedness

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    The tornadoes that struck Henryville, Ind., in March threw an empty school bus into a building. The driver made the decision to evacuate the bus and return the students to school. No one was injured.

    The West Clark Community School Board has met 34 times since tornadoes devastated the Henryville School Complex in March, writes Chuck Hibbert for the School Security blog:

    “We would have had children killed if we followed protocol.”
    —John Reed, assistant superintendent

    The time it took for the tornado to destroy not only the school in Henryville, but the town itself was 23 seconds. It points out the importance of knowing your plan or guideline so that decisions, once made, can be implemented quickly. You must be prepared by having a plan in place and following it based upon your  training, experience, and ability to adapt to unfolding circumstances.

    In a two-part blog post, Hibbert highlights lessons learned during the March tornadoes. Principals at the combined elementary/secondary building decided to dismiss classes early — a decision that ultimately saved lives, says Assistant Superintendent John Reed.

    Bus drivers also sent students into the homes of classmates to take cover rather than wait until they could be released to a parent or guardian. One driver, Angel Perry, returned to the school when she saw the tornado approaching. The 11 students on her bus made it into the building before the tornado blew the bus into a neighboring business.

    “We would have had children killed if we followed protocol,” said Reed.

    The 70 or so people who remained at the school were able to huddle in a basement, but if the principals had not dismissed school early, students would have been sitting in the hallway when the walls collapsed, Reed says.

    A former transportation coordinator who now runs a safety consulting firm, Hibbert was a keynote speaker at the School Transportation Association of Indiana conference last month in French Lick. Some of his tips for other school districts:

    • Place flashlights throughout buildings and on buses near the fire extinguishers. (Emergency lighting at the school failed after the tornado.)
    “Safe zones. We’re going to rethink our strategies on what areas we can take kids to that may be more sound.”
    —John Reed, assistant superintendent
    • Contingency plans shouldn’t take leaders away from their primary positions. Jim Scoggins, the director transportation director, was filling in for another driver and on a route when the tornado hit. “Next school year he will not be driving a bus,” writes Hibbert. “It brings up the point I often make in training about the captain not leaving the helm, whether it is a central office position or on the school bus.”
    • Designate a person to handle press inquiries that isn’t the superintendent, who will likely be needed to make decisions during a catastrophe.
    • When training drivers and district personnel, don’t just read from the handbook. Drivers in Henryville saved lives because they thought on their feet, writes Hibbert. Include event-based or tabletop training.

    Students at Henryville Elementary finished out the school year at Graceland Baptist Church. The district plans to reopen the school in August.


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