October 23, 2012 10:28:25 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
Tornado sirens will sound throughout Mississippi Wednesday, but for area schools, the statewide drill is just one of several they have already conducted this year in preparation for the fall tornado season.
November tornadoes are not uncommon in Mississippi. According to National Weather Service statistics, the state has seen 1,887 tornadoes in the past 50 years, 231 of which occurred in November and claimed 31 lives.
But though the threat is higher in the spring, local educators say it's important to review safety plans now, before disaster strikes. The problem is, protocol can vary widely from district to district, and sometimes even from school to school.
Keeping up with the rules, especially regarding early dismissals, bus runs and parent pick-ups, can be daunting. And some policies may change, depending upon the situation.
The main goal remains the same, from the public schools to the private schools -- keeping children safe.
In the city schools, the superintendent is responsible for gauging the threat of inclement weather and deciding whether students should be held or dismissed.
It's a delicate balance, says public information officer Michael Jackson.
"We do not want to send students home and possibly put them in harm's way or send them to empty homes," he said via email Monday. "Communication to notify the parents of early release is key to making sure all students are kept safe."
The district uses the FalconBlast call system, along with text messages, Facebook and Twitter posts to keep parents informed of emergency situations.
If a tornado warning is issued for Lowndes County during school hours, students are taken to designated areas. Teachers check rolls before leaving the classroom and check them again once the students are in a safe place, making sure no students have been left behind.
Parents cannot pick children up from school during a tornado warning, and classes will not be dismissed until the threat is clear.
The April 27, 2011 tornado in Smithville has not prompted any changes to the district's procedures, but Jackson said they are always examining new research, revising policies when necessary.
The protocol is somewhat different in the county schools, where each principal is authorized to make decisions.
Though Percy Lee is the county schools' career technology director, he also serves as the point of contact for the Lowndes County Emergency Management Agency. When the EMA calls to say there's a threat of severe weather, he begins monitoring the storms on television and the Internet, emailing schools and notifying the superintendent when necessary.
Early dismissal is weighed carefully before a decision is made, especially because with schools so far apart, many parents are miles away, working.
"If you early dismiss, you have to think about this," Lee said. "If we turn school out at two o'clock because the weather will turn bad at four o'clock, we have to look out, because there's nobody at home to take care of these little fellows."
If school is dismissed early, the district alerts parents by telephone. Once a tornado warning is in effect, students are kept in school, but if parents want to pick their children up, the county will release them.
In some cases, though, principals have made decisions that may have saved lives.
"One year at New Hope, all three schools were getting ready to dismiss," Lee said Monday. "We held the kids, and a tornado went over the old Nissan plant, across Lehmberg Road, tearing down trees. It was 7 p.m. before the kids got home. We had to drive some of them."
During the F3 tornado that struck Caledonia in January 2008, the high school principal at the time, Mike Putnam, decided to move students from the allied health and trades building to the main building. Ten minutes later, the tornado roared through town.
"He probably saved a lot of kids' lives, because that building was almost destroyed," Lee said.
Annunciation has a unique situation in that nearly a third of its 151 students live in Starkville, requiring administrators to make quick decisions about early dismissal so parents have time to get to the school and safely home. Communication is made via email and automatic calls to parents.
"Typically, if we're under a warning, we don't follow the same policy as the city schools," said Sayuri Beltran, director of marketing and admissions. "If we're under a warning and the parent wants to come pick up the child, we have to release them."
Students who remain at school during the warning are sent to the hallways in the main building and instructed to crouch, facing the walls, and cover their heads. All classroom doors are closed, to minimize flying debris.
Teachers perform head counts and carry red, yellow and green cards, allowing the principal to walk the halls and immediately see that all children are in place and none are missing.
New headmaster Dr. Greg Carlyle met with the Lowndes County Emergency Management Agency at the beginning of the school year to discuss procedures. The elementary school has already had several drills, he said.
During a tornado warning, students remain in their safe places until EMA notifies Carlyle that the threat is over. If parents come to the school, they are encouraged to stay with their children, rather than leaving campus and possibly being caught in the storm.
Carlyle said catastrophic events like the Smithville tornado serve as a reminder that all emergency situations must be taken seriously.
"You just don't know what's coming when there is a warning," he said Monday. "You have to respond as if it's the real thing, every time."
Immanuel headmaster Bob Williford has a new tool in his emergency preparedness arsenal -- security cameras.
During a tornado warning, students are moved into the main building's interior hallways, where they kneel, facing the wall, with their heads tucked.
Teachers conduct head counts, but thanks to the cameras, Williford can stand in front of a monitor and see every corner of the school, watching for movement that might indicate a student that is out of place.
Parents are kept aware of emergency situations through the school's text alert system and social media accounts.
"We strongly discourage parents from picking students up, since the building is much safer than a vehicle, but if a parent wants to pick up their child, we're not going to argue and fuss with them," Williford said. "That's their child and their decision, but before we let them go, we offer a safe place (for them)."
Williford has firsthand experience with storms. More than a decade ago, when he was principal at Columbus High School, straight-line winds blew out windows and ripped off part of the gymnasium's roof.
He said it heightened his sense of awareness as to how quickly a threat can become an emergency. These days, school administrators feel even more accountable than in the past, he said, and they are always evaluating the strength of their safety plans. Weather warning systems have also improved.
"We can make better decisions, quicker decisions," he said. "There's a comfort level we didn't have 25 years ago."
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.