School transportation conference showcases tornado safety lessons – Part I

Posted by on July 2, 2012

Chuck Hibbert, my colleague and fellow school safety consultant, generously authored a two-part blog piece highlighting his recent experience facilitating a general session of the School Transportation Association of Indiana’s 39th annual conference in French Lick, Indiana. The session highlighted the leadership and heroism displayed by West Clark Community School District transportation staff and district administrators when an EF4 tornado struck in Henryville, Indiana.

Chuck spent over two decades overseeing school security and police services while also assisting with transportation coordination for a 15,000 student township school district in Indianapolis, Indiana.  His experience and credibility as a leader in school safety in Indiana and nationally contributed to his being asked to facilitate this program.

Guest Post by Chuck Hibbert

It was my privilege to have attended, presented and facilitated at the School Transportation Association of Indiana’s 39th annual conference June 20-22, in French Lick, Indiana.  Over two hundred attendees made this wonderful conference a success.

While I presented two sessions on Bus Behavior Management, the highlight of this conference was the closing session I was honored to have facilitated on the West Clark Community School District’s response to the tornado which ripped through southern Indiana on March 2, 2012.

Many readers will recall the images of the Henryville school complex (West Clark Community Schools) which was virtually destroyed when it was struck directly by an EF4 tornado (EF 5 is the highest rating).  Images of the destroyed Henryville School building with a school bus on its side blown into a business across the street became international news.

Dr. John Reed, Assistant Superintendent at West Clark, and Mr. Jim Scroggin, Transportation Director, told their story about the fateful day.  Unable to attend the conference, but certainly one of many who risked their lives to save their children that day, was Angle Perry, the driver of the bus which was blown into the business across the street from the Henryville School after she got the eleven students on her bus sheltered in the Henryville School.

The day of the tornado was a day filled with loss of life (not at school) and devastation, but it was also a day of celebration because of the lives saved and how great decision making, based upon training and experience, saved those lives.  The two gentlemen stated repeatedly that another power also intervened to save lives – a power that guided many that day.

The many points of interest from this session included:

  • “We would have had children killed if we followed protocol,” Dr. Reed said.  This reference made by Dr. Reed was related to several different points.  Children were sent into homes of classmates by the bus drivers who viewed a tornado approaching their bus.  This decision was contrary to the standard that children should not be released to anyone but a parent.  This decision saved lives according to the speakers.  This was an extraordinary event.  Drivers who knew their route, knew their children and families, and knew their community made a decision in the best interest of children.  That is the bottom line lesson for all bus driver training.
  • At the Henryville School, the principals (this is a combined elementary and secondary building) decided to dismiss 20 minutes early to get children away from the school.  If the students would have been kept at school and sheltered, as many of our tornado plans call for in this type of situation, the result would have been tragic. “If we had kids in the hallway of that school, the walls would have collapsed on those kids,” Dr. Reed said.
  • Driver Perry saw a tornado approaching her bus with eleven students on board, and decided to return to Henryville School.  If she had allowed her students off the bus at home or at the home of other students on her bus, most would have been killed or injured according to Dr. Reed.
  • There were 70 children in the building when the storm struck.  Those returned by Driver Perry, children of the staff and a few who remained after school.  This group of students and staff sheltered in a lower level vault area of the building.  No injuries were sustained other than a few bloody noses caused by the pressure of the storm passing overhead as it destroyed the school.
  • West Clark is a relatively small school district, enrollment 4,500 students.  As events would have it, a few bus drivers were off and the director, Jim Scroggins, had to drive a route that afternoon.  One lesson learned in this disaster was Mr. Scroggins was needed at central office as part of the Incident Command team.  Next school year he will not be driving a bus.  It brings up the point I often make in training about the captain not leaving the helm, whether it is a central office position or on the school bus.  Only extraordinary events should take the captain from the helm.
  • The time it took for the tornado to destroy not only the school in Henryville, but the town itself, was 23 seconds.  It points out the importance of knowing your plan or guideline so that decisions, once made, can be implemented quickly.  You must be prepared by having a plan in place and following it based upon your  training, experience, and ability to adapt to unfolding circumstances.

Part II of Chuck’s article will appear tomorrow with more lessons learned.

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