Thursday, July 19, 2018
Education

School district: Lee Elementary had no sprinklers, but all schools practice fire safety

TAMPA — Lee Elementary School had a world studies magnet program and a century-old brick building topped with a graceful cupola. Inside and out, it was the pride of Tampa Heights.

But it didn't have fire sprinklers. And it wasn't alone.

The Hillsborough County Public Schools use fire extinguishers and smoke detectors, emergency lights and flashing strobes to protect children in case of a fire.

Safety inspections happen yearly and "fire drills are held every month school is in session," Grayson Kamm, the district's community relations and media officer, said Thursday. "All of our schools are up to fire code."

In some cases, when an older school is undergoing multiple major renovations, a sprinkler system is added.

But that never happened at Lee. Nor do sprinklers exist at most district schools, according to a list provided by the district, which showed 87 out of more than 200 schools have them.

SEE THE RECORDS: A list of Hillsborough schools with sprinkler systems, and last year's inspection reports from Lee Elementary

"Sprinklers really protect property and not people," Kamm said, emphasizing that the other equipment and practices are far more important.

As the Fire Marshal continued to investigate the cause of Tuesday's three-alarm fire, the district also released the last year's safety inspection records for Lee.

Those records show Lee was flagged for several troublesome practices in the last school year, but none were severe enough to be labeled "priority."

In the fire safety category, the school was told to remove a manual doorstop from a fire door, repair an emergency light in the cafeteria and stop blocking an exit door and storing things near the stairs.

But those issues shed no light on what caused Tuesday's fire.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Flames consume Robert E. Lee Elementary in Tampa Heights (w/video)

"Our primary pursuit is looking into the electrical system of the building," said Tampa Fire Rescue spokesman Jason Penny. Neighbors had just regained power that was out during Hurricane Irma when the blaze began.

Beyond that timeline, officials cannot say anything for sure, and the investigation could take weeks. Penny repeated that there is no indication of arson, a suspicion some raised because the school was named for Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general.

Nor can the district yet give an accurate tally of the damages, which the fire department estimated at close to $5 million.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Lee Elementary, rich with history and contradictions, will move to another school (w/video)

The main concern, Kamm said, is to make sure Lee's 329 students and 49 employees return to school Monday in an environment completely ready for instruction.

Teachers and volunteers from around the district are meeting Friday morning at Lockhart Elementary, the school's new home, to prepare the classrooms. Older students will be housed temporarily at Young Middle School, which sits just north of Lockhart, while the district outfits Lockhart with portable classrooms for them.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.

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