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Tragedy sparks debate over safe rooms in public schools

Filed by KOSU News in Feature.
May 22, 2013

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The schools in Moore didn’t have safe rooms, forcing students and teachers to take cover in rooms constructed to standard building codes. All survived at Briarwood Elementary, but at Plaza Towers, seven were killed by suffocation. One state lawmaker is already pushing for a half billion dollar bond issue to install safe rooms in all public schools, but what’s the current situation….

Safe rooms have been a relatively new phenomenon in Oklahoma – stretching back maybe 20 years. A lot of school buildings are older than that though. Those schools don’t have reinforced walls to protect students. But Jim Rothrock, Public Safety Coordinator at Edmond Public Schools, says few tornadoes reach the strength of the one in Moore Monday.

“Our facilities could probably take an F1, F2, F3, totally survivable. Totally survivable in our brick veneer facilities.”

They’ve incorporated safe rooms into their buildings constructed in the past ten years – that leaves out most facilities. Retro-fitting the older ones would be a costly process, says Rothrock.

“So to build a safe room, we would have to probably build 15 or 20 safe rooms.”


“It’s a minimal cost in the grand scheme of things. I’d say anywhere from 20 to 40 bucks a square foot extra, for just the safe room area, can protect you.”

Brian Orr takes issue with Rothrock’s assessment though. A consultant at engineering firm Toth and Associates in Missouri, he’s written about the topic before. They’re currently working on about 60 projects.

“Most of these shelters, schools can’t afford to build a shelter just to have a shelter. They’re usually multi-purpose rooms , gynamisums, performing arts centers, libraries, cafeterias. So they serve every day as another function.


“So we have this door that drops, it’s a hurricane rated door, so it’ll handle Florida hurricane winds. And it seals at the bottom.”

Assistant Superintendent Jim Ryan is showing me around Stillwater’s new Highland Park Elementary School, still under construction. Parts of the hallways will act as places to take cover – they’re reinforced with a thick layer of concrete all around, and two doors on the sides will be able to withstand winds up to 160 miles per hour.

“We wanted to put the spaces as close to the kids as possible, so all a child has to do is literally walk out their door and  they’re going to be within a few feet of an area of refuge.”

Five so called areas of refuge are scattered throughout Highland Park, opening in August. And the new Will Rodgers Elementary will also have two larger ones on the first floor. Both will be able to hold up to 1,200 people – that’s in case a tornado hits while parents and visitors are in the school.

Back in Edmond, Jim Rothrock says the issue isn’t as straightforward as it might sound, when it comes to older schools.

“We have to be realistic and understand that we’ve gotta build these rooms for hundreds, and hundreds and hundreds of children and staff. It’s not that simple.”

Still, Brian Orr says change is coming. He expects the 2015 International Building Code will include requirements for safe rooms for new public buildings like fire stations, police stations, and….schools. With that said, he can’t find an answer.

Is there a legitimate reason why a school shouldn’t have a safe room?


As the Oklahoma community as a whole recovers and rebuilds, Jim Ryan in Stillwater says lives may be saved in the future. He sees a push ahead from the public.

“It’s going to be a lot easier to make the case unfortunately today. I hate to say it, but sometimes events stimulate people rethinking their priorities. Parents are going to say I demand a place that’s safe for my child.”

Stillwater’s two newest schools will have safe rooms, but older ones do not. In Edmond, much of the same. And in Oklahoma City 5 schools have safe rooms, while 5 others have underground space. OKC Public Schools administration says they’ll consider funding for safe rooms in future bond issues.

2 Responses to “Tragedy sparks debate over safe rooms in public schools”

  1. Vicki says:

    Every school should have multiple safe rooms. There should be enough rooms for every student and staff member. Stop wasting money on unnecessary things. This should be priority one! What is more important than the safety of a child?

  2. Michael says:

    Great to see my High School Chemistry teacher, Mr. Ryan doing great things. The horrific tragedy in Moore not withstanding, we need to do a cost benefit analysis about retrofitting schools and public buildings with tornado safe rooms. This isn't about placing a value on human life, it is about prioritizing the use of our tax dollars in ways the provide the most benefit to the public. Designing safe rooms for new construction makes sense because it can be incorporated into the design effectively for little additional cost to the overall project. Retrofitting is a completely different story. It costs orders of magnitude more to be less effective. Tornadoes kill 60 people per year in the United States on average. While all of those deaths are tragic, the odds of being killed by a tornado are astronomically small when compared to other risks we face every single day. The number of people killed by accidental gunshots every year (600+) is more than 10 times the number killed by tornadoes. Half a billion dollars would buy 2,500,000 gun safes at $200 each.

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