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New safety director says Oklahoma City school hallways 'not appropriate' for refuge during extreme weather

Color coding helps Oklahoma City elementary school students find the nearest restroom or storage room.
by Tim Willert Published: April 1, 2014

With the threat of severe weather back in the forecast, Ian Wolfe is running a race against the clock to find the safest places for students to seek shelter during a tornado.

Wolfe, the new director of safety for Oklahoma City Public Schools, is busy working to determine what he calls “the best areas of refuge” in every school without a safe room.

Only five of the district’s more than 80 schools are equipped with safe rooms: Douglass Mid-High School, John Marshall High School, Martin Luther King Elementary School, U.S. Grant High School and Wheeler Elementary School.

“Of course, it would be amazing if we had a safe room in every building,” he said Tuesday. “But we live in today’s world. I have to look at what I have right now.”

For 676 children at Arthur Elementary School in southwest Oklahoma City, the safest place to go in the event of a tornado will be several restrooms and storage rooms located throughout the building.

“When we assess the school, we’re looking for interior spaces that do not have any windows or external walls,” he said. “We’re trying to identify the best space available to us in that building.”

As Wolfe speaks, a group of third-graders lines up quietly along a hallway wall, waiting to file into a large restroom as part of a mid-day drill.

The children clasp their hands behind their backs waiting for their command.

“Three minutes is your goal,” Principal Rhonda Schroeder tells them. “Let’s go! Go, go, go, go, go!”

As many as 100 of them will be able to fit safely inside the spacious restroom, one of six designated for refuge. One of the bigger restrooms, Schroeder said, can fit 200 pre-kindergarteners and kindergarteners.

“It was really important for us to revise and assess our safety plans to include our tornado procedures after some lessons learned last spring in Moore,” she said.

Part of the plan Schroeder came up with includes a color-coded map in every classroom that tells a teacher, substitute or volunteer exactly where that class is going to go in the event of severe weather. The designated restroom or storage room has a corresponding color above the entrance.

“The most important part is to have a simple plan that even children understand in chaos,” she said. “When things go out of norm, anxiety heightens and people need to know exactly what the plan is.”

Hallways, Wolfe said, are not an appropriate place to shelter district students, at least not without “some modifications.”

“It is a very common practice to shelter students in hallways,” he said. “The problem with that is that most of these hallways have doorways at either end or at least at one end that are glass or partially glass and are not rated for high winds. ... And so what happens is that door blows in and our shelter area has now become a wind tunnel.”

Seven students at Moore’s Plaza Towers Elementary School were among those killed in the tornadoes and floods that devastated Oklahoma last spring.

The school had no storm shelter and no basement. Students took cover in hallways, away from windows, but seven third-graders died when the walls collapsed on them.

“What happened down in Moore last year, yes it was a tragedy,” said Wolfe, who served as risk manager for Oklahoma City University and safety coordinator for Oklahoma County before joining the district. “But the real tragedy would be to not learn from that event.”

by Tim Willert
Education Reporter
Tim Willert is a native Californian with Oklahoma ties who covers education. Prior to moving to Oklahoma in June 2011, he was as an editor for in Century City, Calif., and reported on courts for the Los Angeles Daily Journal and...
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