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City schools addressing severe weather policies

It has been a little more than four years since tornadoes devastated Enterprise High School, leaving eight students dead and a community in crisis. Since that time, school systems statewide have had to wrestle with the idea of dismissing early in the event of severe weather, with some reports indicating an increase in the number of schools dismissing early rather than housing students with such storms looming.

Demopolis City Schools Superintendent Dr. Al Griffin was director for the Troy-Pike Center for Technology in nearby Pike County when the storm occurred. He remembers the day well.

“It was 30 miles south of me. I know the pain and the suffering that community endured as a result of that,” he said. “The school structures are safe structures. For that building to take a direct hit from and F4 tornado and only eight (students) die and the structure to hold together, to take a direct hit like that, they held together really well.”

As an example of the destructive force of the violent winds accompanying that tornado, Griffin pointed out a little known fact.

“The high school sign for (Enterprise High School) landed somewhere near Savannah, Ga,” Griffin said. “It was just a devastating event.”

On the heels of those grim reminders of the storm’s force, Griffin offers that there were far more dangerous structures for students to have been located during such a storm.

“I worry about students returning home if they live in a mobile home,” Griffin said before adding that there is no guarantee students will return to a home that is occupied if they are dismissed suddenly.

The issue at its heart is one of student safety, something Griffin cites as the most important thing to the school system.

“Student safety is not a top priority, it is the top priority. Every time,” he said. “That is our top priority.”

Given that stance, Demopolis City Schools cannot dismiss suddenly in the event of severe weather given the landscape of the system.

“If there is a threat of severe weather and you see it coming and it is an hour away,” Griffin said, “we do not have buses. We have students who walk. We have those who have to wait on brothers and sisters from the high school. Closing the school early for icy roads is different. That is a preventative measure.”

The current school board policy on the matter provides the superintendent with the authority to close any or all schools in the event of an emergency. Griffin said that call is one that would not be made hastily.

“If I were going to call it when you see severe weather coming, I’d rather call it the entire day,” Griffin said, stating that he would rather give students several hours to get home or another safe shelter rather than try to outrun the weather. “To release at the last minute, I totally disagree with it. We do not release students in the event of a tornado warning.”

The same board policy gives school personnel the right to retain control of students until schools are dismissed or until they depart from the school bus. That means the school can refuse to release a student if a parent or guardian attempts to check them out during an emergency.

“We have our procedures. We go through regular drills. You just do not know until an event actually occurs,” Griffin said. “We’d have staff on campus until every child was accounted for.”