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June 18, 2013

Schools need better shelters during storms

NORMAN — Analysis and improvement of schools’ storm procedures is nothing new for scholars like Stephanie Hoekstra, whose master’s thesis was based on this topic in 2011.

“I was interested in K-12 districts and tornado warnings, particularly the role of superintendents,” Hoekstra said. “I got interested because 25 percent of the population is in a public school district, but these students have no legal recourse or autonomy in decision making, so the superintendents’ authority in making situational judgment calls is pretty huge and they typically have little or no meteorology knowledge.”

Hoekstra worked with Social Science Woven into Meteorology, a program promoting collaborative research and partnerships between the social sciences and the physical sciences.

Hoekstra’s research was on a national scale, focusing on schools in the northeastern portions of the country — where tornado expertise is significantly lower than districts in Oklahoma.

In an effort to find common errors in procedure/storm warning response and make improvements, Hoekstra gathered information from various districts about procedures and the consideration given to storm warnings by administrators.

In many cases, she said, her findings were “disturbing.”

“In terms of sheltering, gyms and cafeterias were common, but that’s a terrible place to shelter students, being a wide-open area with vulnerable structure points such as windows,” Hoekstra said. “In one case, students were originally sent to the cafeteria according to planned and then moved to another part of the school after the warning was already in effect. This is serious because time is such a crucial component of schools’ appropriate response.”

NOAA Storm Prediction Center Meteorologist Roger Edwards agrees in his essay “Tornado Preparedness Tips for School Administrators.”

“Large, open-span areas such as gymnasiums, auditoriums and most lunchrooms can be very dangerous even in weak tornadoes and should not be used for sheltering people. This sort of room has inherent structural weaknesses with lack of roof support, making them especially prone to collapse ...” Edwards writes.

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