School Climate & Safety Opinion

Buildings, Not Drills, Hold Key to Disaster-Proof Schools

By Nancy Bailey, Barry Welliver & Edward Wolf — July 18, 2011 4 min read
Survivors and relatives pray for dead and missing victims of the Okawa Elementary school in Ishinomaki, Japan, earlier this month. The school was destroyed by the 2011 tsunami; 74 of 108 students and 10 of 13 teachers and staff at the facility were killed.

The year 2011 capped a cruel winter with a hit parade of nature’s turbulent extremes. Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, the cresting Mississippi, wildfires in Arizona and Texas, and deadly tornadoes from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Joplin, Mo., served, each in its own way, as heartbreaking reminders of human vulnerability to natural disaster.

Schools answer vulnerability with preparedness, and for millions of American students that means safety drills. But such exercises fuel an unwarranted complacency when life-threatening hazards go unattended. Consider the Great Central U.S. ShakeOut.

On the last Thursday in April, at 10:15 a.m., more than 3 million students, educators, and other citizens across an 11-state region dropped to the floor, covered their heads, and held on to their desks for 60 seconds. The ShakeOut, an earthquake drill modeled on a California event and endorsed by the Obama administration, marked the bicentennial of the New Madrid, Mo., earthquakes, a swarm of temblors that shook a region—that includes parts of Illinois, Tennessee, and Arkansas with greater-than-magnitude-7 seismic force.

ShakeOut participants included tens of thousands of students in Memphis. Those students dropped, covered, and held on in aging buildings that have never been strengthened to withstand earthquake shaking. As school safety advocates in three cities whose public schools share those deficiencies, that disconnect disturbs us.

Isn’t it time for state legislators, who mandate school attendance, to sweep complacency aside and fix schools with deadly defects?"

The consensus expectation of all but a few seismologists is that a repeat of the New Madrid quakes would destroy many unreinforced buildings, trapping and killing occupants regardless of whether they followed safety procedures. If the risk is judged high enough to engage millions of participants in a multistate safety drill, isn’t it time for state legislators, who mandate school attendance, to sweep complacency aside and fix schools with deadly defects?

The Mid-South is not the only region facing this conundrum. Others include the rapidly growing Wasatch Front region in Utah, where the 240-mile Wasatch Fault may be girding for an earthquake of magnitude 7, and the Pacific Northwest, where the offshore Cascadia Fault could generate an earthquake and tsunami that would exceed the magnitude-9 quake that shook Japan earlier this year.

The Mid-South, the Wasatch Front, and the Pacific Northwest were each settled during an interval of relative seismic calm. In each region, public policy can scarcely keep up with scientists’ grasp of the risks. And in each one, hundreds of thousands of children attend classes in buildings not designed to protect them on the day that local faults decide to slip.

Utah has taken the first step to gauge the risk, using Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to survey 128 school buildings along the Wasatch Front with a “rapid visual screening” method designed to help prioritize safety investments. The survey turned up 77 buildings that needed a closer look, and of those, 46 are believed to be at high or very high risk of collapse. Utah’s Seismic Safety Commission urges expanding the survey to all of the state’s 1,085 K-12 school buildings. But state lawmakers, even in family-friendly Utah, have yet to take up the cause.

Oregon has gone further, completing a statewide survey of 2,186 school buildings, along with fire stations, police stations, and hospitals. The results raised eyebrows: The survey found that 1,018 school buildings, or 47 percent of all K-12 buildings examined, rated high or very high for risk of collapse in a strong earthquake. But efforts to fix risky schools have scarcely begun: A state grant program launched in 2009 and subsequently cut by 25 percent received $7.5 million in life support from legislators in 2011. A couple dozen schools will be fixed, but hundreds remain dangerous.

Memphis, meanwhile, has yet to acknowledge the risk faced by the 113,000 students who attend public schools in that city. The school district’s latest five-year capital plan does not mention the word “earthquake.” Local officials are not blind to the risk; the Hernando De Soto Bridge on I-40 has been strengthened to withstand earthquakes, and seismic retrofits to Memphis International Airport and area trauma centers are being considered. Public schools, apparently, just don’t count as “critical structures.”

We live on a restless earth, and we know a great deal about its danger zones. Throughout America, we locate neighborhoods and schools in those zones, but tend to allow an “it won’t happen here” mentality to prevail.

In too many communities, we persist in quixotic exercises, staging earthquake drills in classrooms that could pancake the day an actual earthquake strikes along one of our dangerous faults.

Drills like ShakeOut have a useful role. They raise awareness and impart knowledge that will save lives. But underdesigned buildings killed thousands of schoolchildren in Sichuan, China, in 2008 and in Haiti in 2010, and underdesigned buildings could kill children here in the United States.

We can’t prevent natural disasters, but we owe it to our children to fix or replace unfit schools that put them in harm’s way. The toll taken by nature’s extremes is largely our choice.


Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
Teaching Live Online Discussion How to Develop Powerful Project-Based Learning
How do you prepare students to be engaged, active, and empowered young adults? Creating a classroom atmosphere that encourages students to pursue critical inquiry and the many skills it requires demands artful planning on the
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Safe Return to Schools is Possible with Testing
We are edging closer to a nationwide return to in-person learning in the fall. However, vaccinations alone will not get us through this. Young children not being able to vaccinate, the spread of new and
Content provided by BD

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Spotlight Spotlight on Safe Reopening
In this Spotlight, review how your district can strategically apply its funding, and how to help students safely bounce back, plus more.

School Climate & Safety Video A Year of Activism: Students Reflect on Their Fight for Racial Justice at School
Education Week talks to three students about their year of racial justice activism, what they learned, and where they are headed next.
4 min read
Tay Andwerson, front center, Denver School Board at-large director, leads demonstrators through Civic Center Park on a march to City Park to call for more oversight of the police Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Denver.
Tay Andwerson, front center, Denver School Board at-large director, leads demonstrators through Civic Center Park on a march to City Park to call for more oversight of the police Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Denver.
David Zalubowski/AP
School Climate & Safety Interactive Which Districts Have Cut School Policing Programs?
Which districts have taken steps to reduce their school policing programs or eliminate SRO positions? And what do those districts' demographics look like? Find out with Education Week's new interactive database.
A police officer walks down a hall inside a school
Collage by Vanessa Solis/Education Week (images: Michael Blann/Digital/Vision; Kristen Prahl/iStock/Getty Images Plus )
School Climate & Safety These Districts Defunded Their School Police. What Happened Next?
Six profiles of districts illustrate the tensions, successes, and concerns that have accompanied the changes they've made to their school police programs over the last year.
Deering High School in Portland, Maine, one of two schools to have their SROs removed.
Deering High School in Portland, Maine, one of two schools to have their SROs removed.
Ryan David Brown for Education Week