WAS it really just weeks ago that the conversation about keeping children safe at school centered on whether the Legislature would OK the arming of teachers? The debate seems like so long ago. Nature is good at rearranging the weather in ways that mess with time — and rearranging priorities in the process.
Elementary schools reduced to piles of metal beams, soaking insulation and rubble won't leave the minds of Oklahomans any time soon. Neither will the images of first responders lined up to remove concrete blocks and crushed pieces of wall as they searched for the seven students who perished at Plaza Towers Elementary — the very place their parents or other caregivers dropped them off Monday morning, never imagining it would be the last time those children stepped foot into a school house.
We already know that the heroics of teachers saved lives at Plaza Towers and Briarwood Elementary, the other school leveled by the tornado. They are heroes, indeed. But as the hours passed and rescue workers searched in vain for signs of life at Plaza Towers, you couldn't help but wonder how this could happen and how such a tragedy could have been avoided.
The coming days and weeks are likely to raise more questions than answers for grieving families. Moore schools Superintendent Susan Pierce said all schools took precautions as the severe weather approached. Other officials said that while some Moore schools had storm shelters, Plaza Towers and Briarwood did not.
One idea is to dismiss schools on days when tornado outbreaks are highly likely, the “snow day” concept transferred to springtime. But this raises concerns about having so many kids at home alone when severe weather strikes. Most of those homes would offer less protection than the average school building.
Talk of requiring storm shelters at every Oklahoma school was inevitable. If state Rep. Joe Dorman hadn't picked up the mantle on that issue, someone else would have. So often, this is how policy is made. In the face of tragedy and chaos and heartache, we want answers. We want the pain to stop. We want to prevent such a horrific disaster from ever happening again.
We owe the children at Plaza Towers and at Briarwood this conversation. It's the very least Oklahoma can do.
Schools are not financed in a way that would make a massive effort to install storm shelters large enough to house an entire student body a real possibility. That's especially true if talk trends to underground shelter, the preferred method of sheltering in the face of the most violent tornadoes such as the one that struck Monday. Unlike some states, Oklahoma provides almost no money for schools to pay for capital improvements. Schools largely rely on local bond issues, which are underwritten by property taxes, require supermajority voter approval and have strict limits on the amount that can be financed.
If a mandate for storm shelters makes its way from the state to school districts, the state would need to pay for it or provide a funding mechanism. Dorman is suggesting a statewide bond issue.
We've already heard the reasoning that it's too complicated to consider and work out the details this session. Maybe that's true. We do know this: The Legislature has no problem twisting arms and making things happen quickly when it wants to badly enough. We owe the little ones in Moore a serious conversation on school safety not related to guns, even with the clock ticking toward sine die.