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Oklahoma tornado spawns school safety concerns in bay area

Debris litters what remains of a classroom at Plaza Towers Elementary after it was destroyed by a tornado that ripped through Moore, Okla., on Monday.

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Debris litters what remains of a classroom at Plaza Towers Elementary after it was destroyed by a tornado that ripped through Moore, Okla., on Monday.

After Monday's devastating tornado in Oklahoma tore through an elementary school, parents gathered at a nearby church, listening for a man with a megaphone to read out their children's names.

While tornadoes on the Florida coast typically pale in comparison to the twister that devastated Moore, Okla., and Plaza Towers Elementary, bay area parents may still wonder how their children's schools would handle a major emergency.

"Make sure all the children are very safe. Make sure all the parents knew exactly what happened," is the priority for Tara Harrington, who has a son in kindergarten at Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg.

Each school in the Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas districts has a crisis management plan for most conceivable emergencies — everything from severe weather to weapons on campus or a dangerous gas leak. The plans involve coordination between teachers, students, parents, local law enforcement and the media. Schools drill and review these practices each year and make sure schools have staff to fill each role outlined in the crisis management plan.

"The real solution in these situations is having the process in effect before the incidents take place so people don't have to think," said Bryan Blavatt, Hernando County school superintendent.

Parents can look to school handbooks to learn what to expect in an emergency situation, Blavatt added.

Automated phone systems can send out messages to parents in five minutes or less, said Stephen Hegarty, spokesman for Hillsborough County schools.

"The best invention in the past 10 to 15 years for schools is the mass recorded phone call," he said.

If phone lines are down, schools will work with local news outlets to get out information.

If an evacuation is necessary, each school has a designated location to take children — often another nearby campus. Schools have checklists in place and designated personnel to make sure every child is accounted for and reunited with a parent.

"We don't leave until the last child leaves," Hegarty said.

Because many Florida schools double as hurricane shelters, staff and facilities are prepared for emergency weather, said Michael Bessette, associate superintendent for facilities and operations in Pinellas County.

Communicating with parents can sometimes complicate schools' emergency response. If a lockdown to investigate a report of danger on or near campus is brief or a false alarm, an alert could cause unnecessary panic, said Linda Cobbe, spokeswoman for Pasco County Schools. Some students contact parents via cellphone, and parents want to pick up their children even if the threat has passed. Parents gathering around the school can also compromise a lockdown.

"If the school caught on fire, we would (call them) right away," Cobbe said. "But a lockdown situation, it makes it difficult."

In a potential emergency, administrators have to deal with parents "very delicately," Bessette said. They want to collect their children quickly, but making sure each child is accounted for is sometimes a slow process.

Contact Lauren Carroll at lcarroll@tampabay.com.

Oklahoma tornado spawns school safety concerns in bay area 05/22/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 22, 2013 10:35pm]
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