Severe weather response plans have been developed by the Cleveland City and Bradley County School systems in coordination with the Bradley County Emergency Management Agency.
Johnny Mull of Bradley County Schools said school officials also attend any severe weather update meetings at the Bradley County 911 Center. It is from these meetings based on EMA information that decisions about whether to dismiss school are made.
Each school in the Bradley County system has monthly tornado drills. Fire drills, lockdown drills and other emergency preparedness drills are also held throughout the year.
Cleveland City schools hold tornado drills twice a year. The first is at the beginning of the year and another is in February on National Tornado Drill Day. Fire drills are practiced every week for the first month of school. Every city school also conducts lockdown drills.
“A plan is basically worthless unless you drill it and evaluate it,” Safe Schools Officer Scotty Hernandez said.
Students and teachers in both school systems are instructed to gather in the hallways because they are usually the most interior space. In BCS schools with underground rooms, such as Charleston Elementary School, students closest to those rooms would go there rather than to a hallway. Cleveland High School students in the science wing are moved to another area of the school due to the numerous windows.
“All the schools have an extensive preparedness plan,” Mull said.
Dr. Martin Ringstaff, director of city schools, said every teacher within the system knows the crisis management plan.
"In today's world we live by those things," Ringstaff said.
All teachers are thoroughly trained for crises prior to school opening in August.
"As of now, the schools have become shelters. People are allowed to come in, but they are not allowed to go out," Ringstaff said. "If the parent is demanding the student, then so be it. [However] we are still under the impression they are safer in the school than in the road or in their house."
Bradley County Schools follows a similar policy.
In the event of a natural disaster, Ocoee Middle School opens as a shelter offering aid and assistance.
In the city system, Ringstaff said parents coming to the schools to pick up their children in the event of a storm puts more than just their lives in danger.
"If you think about the logistics behind that, our staff is also under lockdown," Ringstaff said. "The school resource officer will have to unlock the door and then locate where the child is in the building."
This plan is set to change for Walker Valley High School in the county system when the new addition is built. The eight-classroom addition will be built to safe room standards and will be able to withstand 200 mph winds. The classrooms will also be built to withstand debris flying at speeds in excess of 100 mph. It is being estimated that the entire student body could seek shelter in this wing in the event of a tornado. EMA operations officer Jerry Johnson said it would be a tight fit, but they would all fit.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency also requires the safe room to be open to the public.
Hernandez said a timeline for completion of the project has not been set.
“I’m excited about it,” Hernandez said. “I think it is a well-designed idea and a well-designed plan.”
Mull said considering meeting safe room standards for future school construction would be a good idea.
According to Ringstaff, the Cleveland Board of Education asks numerous questions about safety when building a new school. He said each school is constructed to be more reinforced than the average building.
Hernandez said Bradley County Schools has an emergency preparedness evaluation by an outside agency each year. He said this helps to determine the safest places in the school in the event of an emergency.
“There are many schools of thought, but mainly you need to be away from exterior walls,” Hernandez said.
He pointed out even in the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma some interior walls were still standing when exterior walls were destroyed.
In emergency situations, teachers will have to make quick decisions.
Special attention is also given in both school systems to moving children with disabilities to a safe location.
Communication during an emergency situation is also important.
Hernandez said the schools use two-way radios to communicate directly with EMA in an emergency situation. All of the main offices in the city schools are equipped with an emergency radio. When an alert is sent out, the school immediately responds with the appropriate emergency plan. In the case of a tornado, students are moved to the hallways and other secure areas of the building.
"We drill it. We practice it a lot. I am proud of the fact we take it very seriously in Bradley County and Cleveland City," Ringstaff said. "I think we have great resources in place, if a worst-case scenario happened. We could minimize damage to the best of our ability."