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SATURDAY, MARCH 3, 2007
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Decisions on dealing with severe weather difficult

By Bayne Hughes
hughes@decaturdaily.com 340-2432

West Morgan High School Principal Bill Hopkins admits that severe weather threats make him as nervous as a cat in a thunderstorm.

Hopkins, who is responsible for about 700 students, hopes his superintendent makes the right decisions for their safety. But he understands how difficult making the right decision is.

"All you can do is watch the weather and use your best judgment," Hopkins said.

School officials across the state are re-evaluating safety plans following the tornado that hit Enterprise High School and killed eight Thursday.

Are students safer at home or at school? That's a dilemma for parents.

"I can't answer that question," Decatur City Schools Supervisor of Safety Phil Hastings said. "But it's rare that a school gets a direct hit like it did Thursday in Enterprise."

Hopkins said he prefers students to be at home during a storm. He said the odds increase that someone will get hurt when people are concentrated in one area.

School officials agreed that it's the parents' choice. They won't stop parents who want to pick up their children. But Lawrence County Superintendent Dexter Rutherford asked parents for patience because periods of severe weather can become chaotic and school officials still must follow checkout procedures.

Hastings said Morgan County Emergency Management officials inspected Decatur's school buildings for safe and unsafe areas during a tornado. Also, the state requires that schools hold a tornado drill at least once a month.

School officials said the unpredictable and unstable weather conditions Thursday led to ending classes early or calling them off entirely. In The Daily's coverage area, five of the six school systems sent students home between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.

"We just didn't know what that (weather) system might spawn," said Morgan County Superintendent Bob Balch.

Lawrence County students didn't go to school. Rutherford said he didn't like the look of an approaching thunderstorm when he woke up at 4:45 a.m. After talking to EMA officials, he called off classes.

"When they said the atmosphere was going to be extremely unstable all day and it was so rough right then, I just decided right then not to have school," Rutherford said.

If weather forecasters say a storm is going to be an all-day event and school officials have 12 to 24 hours notice, as they had Thursday, school officials will cancel school or end the day early.

But if a storm is a short event predicted to come and go in the middle of the day, officials will keep students in class and go into a tornado drill if a warning is sounded, Hastings said.

Rutherford said he needs at least two hours to get everyone home safely before a storm hits.

School officials agreed that they don't want students traveling between home and school when a storm hits. If an event occurs before school lets out, they will keep students at school and invite the parents to take cover, too.

"One year when I was principal, the superintendent ordered no one to be released until 5 p.m.," Rutherford said.

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