St. John School Principal Pat Newton still gets emotional talking about the day nine years ago when she stood on stage during a spring performance of “Alice in Wonderland” and told the crowd to take cover.
“They were so orderly,” Newton said of the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students as they left the stage. “They went down into the hallway and, like they practiced, crouched down with their hands behind their heads.”
She then dismissed the parents.
“We had to take cover. I don’t know for how long, maybe an hour,” Newton said. “It was scary.”
The May 8, 2003, tornado didn’t hit the school, but it did do significant damage to an apartment complex and homes in southwest Lawrence.
The night was one of the few times the veteran educator can remember putting all those years of tornado drills to use.
“You can’t plan enough. It is so important to come up with a plan and follow it and talk about it. It is just really important,” Newton said.
Last week’s devastating series of tornadoes throughout the Midwest raised tough questions on what schools should do when severe weather threatens to hit during the school day.
According to The Associated Press, students in Henryville, Ind., were loaded onto buses last Friday just as a tornado was headed their way. While bus drivers raced students home, the storm destroyed a large part of the school. All of the school’s students survived, but some of them had to seek shelter in crawl spaces or on the floor of a car.
Tornadoes often come with little warning and force administrators to make the tough call of whether to send students home in advance of a storm or to shelter them in schools.
Douglas County Emergency Management Director Terri Smith said every school, even those within the same district, have different policies and procedures for severe weather. And the call of what to do often lands on the school principal.
“We just give them the information and they make the determination on what to do with it,” Smith said.
This summer, Free State High School had to re-evaluate its tornado plan when 400 ninth-grade students were added to the building.
“The spaces we used before weren’t ample enough,” assistant principal Mike Hill said. “We had to add more.”
At both St. John and Free State, parents are free to pick up their child if severe weather is looming, but neither school would send children home. Free State also won’t let students who drive to school leave.
“It would be hard to say any place is bulletproof. But we feel confident in the facility and its ability to protect the kids should we be hit directly by a tornado,” Hill said.
At Free State, Hill said students would go to interior rooms that don’t have windows or exterior walls during a tornado. Classrooms that aren’t in the interior of the school have a designated room to go to during a tornado warning. Once in the fall and twice in the spring, students are required to practice tornado drills.
“Some kids are jammed packed in there,” Hill said of the rooms.
Only once has Hill seen students take cover for real. It was a Friday afternoon after school and there were still students in the building and athletic teams practicing nearby.
“It went off without a hitch,” Hill said. “No one was in harm’s way.”
On the day of the May 8, 2003 tornado, Newton said they had known bad weather was on the way and were monitoring the storms. It helped that Newton’s husband, Bob Newton, worked at Douglas County Emergency Management and was on duty that night.
Before the play began, Newton explained what the evacuation procedures would be and that they would stop the play if the sirens went off. While the children obediently took cover, Newton said it was a little harder to manage their dads, who in typical Kansas fashion went outside to look at the clouds.
“At first I worried about them, but then I thought I had done my (part),” Newton said.
After the all-clear was given, the students returned to the stage and the show went on.