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4-12 GYMO

Second guessers: get the facts before criticizing school leaders on severe weather dismissal calls

April 2012

By Brad Hughes
KSBA Director of Member Support Services

It sure didn’t take long.

In the hours and days after March 2 tornadoes, high winds, hail and heavy rains brought damage, destruction and death to numerous Kentucky communities:

• A TV station’s website polled viewers on whether they agreed with local school leaders’ decisions on keeping students at school or sending them home early (varying by district).

• A radio station talk show host said “superintendents will have some explaining to do” about why students were put on buses during the stormy weather.

• A weekly newspaper published a story headlined “Parents criticize schools’ severe weather plans,” a story attributing the plural parents’ angst to a lone email from one mother.

• A sufficient number of challenges to the “shelter students or send them home” decision that at least two (that I know of) superintendents crafted communications to parents to explain.

But there also was no shortage of second guessing the decisions by superintendents and principals. Ironically, by my monitoring of news stories and anecdotal conversations, and email exchanges with school personnel, it appears there were as many people who questioned a decision to send students home, early or as scheduled, as there were those who wanted to grill officials when the kids were kept in their schools.

One of the bright spots was a national Associated Press story quoting several Kentucky school officials, detailing the many and varied factors that came into play on that Friday morning and afternoon.  The article clearly gave readers insights into what must be considered – and, most importantly, how information that drives those decisions can change minute by minute during a storm.

If your district doesn’t already take the extra step to spread the word – in advance – about the process for making a severe weather dismissal decision, maybe it’s time to take that policy and turn it into a communications piece.

Not the same as ice and snow
Superintendents know they are in a no-win situation every winter when snow and ice – and the potential for the same – is in the weather forecast. But the general public probably doesn’t grasp that there are different factors that come into play if what’s coming down the road is a possible tornado.

• Seldom do you see photos of a neighborhood after a heavy snow storm where one home is covered in white stuff but the houses on either side look like an early spring scene. But we’ve all seen pictures or heard the stories of the aftermath of a tornado: one structure untouched while another a few yards away simply doesn’t exist anymore.

• Icy driving conditions can vary dramatically from one part of a community to another. But if memory serves, ice storms typically don’t change direction on short notice. As I monitored the live newscasts throughout March 2, communities were directly in the path of a tornado, then weren’t, then were again.

• I’m no snob about housing, having lived in a mobile home. But from a safety perspective, a superintendent or principal who knows there are many students living in mobile homes has an extraordinarily different set of decisions to make than if most of the kids reside in brick and mortar structures.  Sure, people die in houses, too, but I keep seeing the image of that Indiana school virtually destroyed by a tornado, and the kids and staff who remained safe in an interior office.

• The home life situation also applies to the decision about sending kids to be home alone. Does anyone have great confidence that a second-grader in a house – much less a mobile home – knows where to go to find protection, what to listen to on the TV or radio or how to react when the sound of sirens suddenly fills the air? At least at school, if “duck and cover” is advised, an adult makes it happen.

There are plenty of other factors superintendents and principals are faced with in making go or stay decisions: availability of bus drivers on short notice, differing geographic contours of land from one part of the community to another, rapidly changing predictions for a storm’s path. It may not be an endless list, but I’m betting it’s a list of variables those outside school leadership roles aren’t familiar with.

The Last Word
Anyone can sympathize with a concerned parent, regardless of whether that concern is about their child on a bus in a storm, stuck in a school waiting for a storm that never arrives or sent home with backup child care options – in a communitywide emergency, no less.

We can hope, though, that a thorough explanation of the reasons – the factors, the resources called upon, and the pros and cons that must be weighed by superintendents and principals –  will cause the majority of the critics and the second guessers out there to pause, take a deep breath and think, “Oh. Hmm.”

It may be an explanation that is needed every spring, maybe sent out by a district’s emergency notification system – just in case – as stormy weather approaches.

At any rate, it’s clearly a message worth getting out.

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