How schools fail at keeping children safe

A new study looks at ways to prevent school casualties when natural disasters strike

Every weekday during the academic year, more than 50 million children across the United States enter public school buildings, says Lori Peek. Many of these buildings are so dilapidated and poorly designed that children’s health and safety are at risk. In a New York Times editorial, Peek called these schools “deathtraps” a term intended to shock people into awareness.

Peek, the director of the Natural Hazards Center and professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder, studies vulnerable populations in disaster areas. As the co-author of Children of Katrina, she studied how the hurricane caused long-term problems for the lives of New Orleans school children. More recently, Peek helped write FEMA guidelines for protecting schools against natural hazards.

When you began this research, were you surprised by what you learned?

I think some of the most shocking things I learned writing the Times article and co-authoring the FEMA guidebook are related to the number of children who could die in this nation if there is a major earthquake along the Cascadia Fault or along the Wasatch Front.

There are so many unreinforced masonry schools in Nevada and Utah and Washington that we definitely know that if big earthquakes happen during the school day, children will perish in those events. If I would have talked to you even eight years ago, I probably couldn’t have told you what an unreinforced masonry building is.

Now consider tornadoes. About 1,200 occur annually in the United States. Oklahoma is one of the most tornado-prone states in the nation. Fifty-six Oklahoma schools were damaged or destroyed by tornadoes in 2013.

In researching the article, I found that fewer than half of public schools in Oklahoma have a tornado shelter—and in 2017 the Oklahoma Uniform Building Code Commission quietly removed the requirement that new schools have them. I could literally see, via track changes, where they struck through the requirements that new schools have storm shelters.

It was shocking to see that, especially knowing that Illinois, around the same time, had made it mandatory that all new schools have these storm shelters.

The National Institute of Building Sciences reports that the nation could save $6 for every $1 it invests in strengthening school buildings. Not to get political, but it’s hard to say we don’t have the money when you look at things like military budgets.

Right, and you would think anybody across the political spectrum would get behind a statistic like that. You would think everyone would say yes, I want to invest that $1 on the front end so we can save so much more on the back end. Even in this highly polarized environment we’re living in, this is the one thing we should all get behind, right?

Nobody wants to see children going to these crumbling schools, nobody wants to see a child have their life literally put at risk or have their opportunity for learning diminished. But then when it comes down to the question of how we are going to make these investments, it gets tricky.

That report also says it would take $1 billion dollars to put a storm shelter in every school in Oklahoma. Now, if I’m a superintendent in an Oklahoma district, I’d say, “Yes, of course I want a storm shelter, but I also have 50-year-old textbooks that I’m teaching from in my schools.” This is why, as disaster researchers, we try to get people to think about what we call “low-probability/high-consequence” events.

We understand that on any given day there’s a low probability that today will be the day that the Cascadia Fault ruptures, but if today is that day then there is a high probability that thousands of children could perish there.

I want kids to have current books every day, I want them to have well-paid teachers, I want them to have all those things, but I also know that if we think about long-term health and vitality and justice and equity, building safety has to be part of the plan.

In the FEMA guidebook it says, “Perhaps because children are required to attend school by law, the general public often perceives school buildings as possessing good resistance to natural hazards.” How can the public respond if they don’t know there is a problem?

That’s absolutely right. One of my co-authors said, “You realize that there are really only two major mass-assembly settings that we require by law that people show up to on any given day—a courthouse or jail, and a school.” If we legally require children to attend school, then we should be held accountable for keeping them safe there.

How do we begin to change this perception?

All it takes is one champion or one advocate who recognizes that their schools can be unsafe. One of my mitigation heroes is Arrietta Chako, a resilience expert from California. She recognized that her child was attending an unreinforced masonry school, and worked tirelessly to do everything she could to call attention to that and help make the schools in her district safer. Sometimes school leaders become champions for this.

After Joplin High School was destroyed by a tornado in 2011, the school leaders did all kinds of creative things in rebuilding the high school. For example, we know that it can be very traumatic to move children with autism in such a stressful environment. So, in Joplin, they put the tornado shelter in that special education classroom. That way the children with disabilities don’t have to move in the case of a tornado warning—everyone else comes to that room.

I’m all about institutional change, and I think that many times it really does take top-down regulation, but I also recognize that oftentimes systemic change is rooted in the grassroots level and the local level. So I think it’s both, and not an either-or situation.

If the Oklahoma public realized that their building requirement had been altered, would there be an uprising? I don’t know. We’re living in a historical moment right now where the narrative is, “Get the government out of my life. I don’t want any more regulations.” Yet I think it’s only going to be with more institutional requirements that we can ensure school buildings are built up to standard.

Your article and the FEMA guide are strong calls to action. How can district leaders and administrators get involved?

The guidebook is full of resources. We had school leaders as part of our expert review panel, and they pushed us to answer that question. They’d say, “You’re making these recommendations, but the first thing a district administrator is going to ask is, ‘How am I going to pay for this?’‚Á„Á¢”

So to answer your question, I think some things that are really important are, one, that the guidebook itself is full of low- or no-cost actionable recommendations. Number Two, it also recognizes that making schools safe is not something that will happen overnight. Planning takes time, preparedness takes time, and making a school facility safe takes time and money—especially if it requires a retrofit or a rebuild.

FEMA has a host of hazard mitigation grant programs that many school leaders don’t know they can apply for. They could get funding before a disaster or, if their school is struck low by a disaster, they can get funds afterward if they have a hazard mitigation plan. There is also advice on some of the most immediate and incremental—but still very important—steps that you can take to begin assessing and then acting on your risk.

Once you’ve done the risk assessment, you can begin creating coalitions, because oftentimes the money is not all going to come from the federal or state government or via a local bond issue. There’s going to have to be awareness-raising.

The guidebook is good for taking that practical approach because district administrators were involved in the process from the start and

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