It can happen suddenly — a shockingly random burst of violence from a person on campus, or a spark from a fallen wire that ignites a devastating blaze. It can happen with plenty of warning and still be catastrophic — a relentlessly rising river that spills over its banks and swallows part of a school campus.
Some regions are prone to hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or earthquakes. Other tragedies, such as fires or acts of violence, can occur just about anywhere. Regardless of the specific type of disaster, schools and universities must be prepared to cope with crises that can disrupt operations, destroy facilities, and displace students and staff.
Education administrators need to respond quickly to rebound from such incidents because students are depending on them to provide an environment where they can recover — and continue to learn.
Fire and ice
In December 2007, an ice storm struck the Oklahoma City area; it brought down electrical lines and knocked out power for many, including the high school in Jones, about 15 miles east of Oklahoma City.
So when a fire started — apparently from downed power lines — on the roof of Jones High School in the early morning of Dec. 10, the fire alarm was not functioning. By the time the flames were detected and firefighters were able to respond, the facility was consumed with fire. No one was injured, but more than 300 students lost their school.
With the help of many individuals, businesses and organizations in the community, Jones school officials acted quickly to get students back into classrooms and began putting together plans to rebuild.
"Other districts around here were out for five days because of the ice storm," says Jones superintendent Michael Steele. "Even with the fire, our students were out only seven days. Things really fell into place."
Immediately after the fire, the district set up classrooms in the back of a gymnasium and in a vocational-agricultural building that were spared from the flames. The county government, Oklahoma State University's Local Technical Assistance Program and area businesses came together to help the district construct pads for portable classrooms. Without a cafeteria, students were served lunch at a church across the street.
Students and teachers made do, but conditions were hardly ideal. To get to and from classes, they often would encounter wind, rain and snow.
"You don't want your students having to go through that," says Steele. "Their hallways are gravel. They get soaking wet walking to classes. Their book bags get frozen. But they've really fared pretty well."
A temporary site is more palatable when those involved know a permanent solution is on the way. Voters in the Jones district provided that permanent answer in April 2008, when they approved a $12.4 million bond proposal.
"We had 80 percent approval," says Steele. "We were very pleased with the results."
Combined with insurance proceeds, the money is enabling the district to build a new Jones High School. The high school will have two stories, with 26 classrooms and a cafeteria. It will have capacity for 400 students. The campus also will have a newly built gymnasium.
"They are putting up the tilt-up walls for the gymnasium as we speak," says Steele.
With the perspective of 15 months since the catastrophe, Steele describes the experience as bittersweet.
"There is some nostalgia about the old school," he concedes. "What people inquired about most after the fire were the senior pictures that hung on the walls. The fire didn't just burn the pictures, it disintegrated the frames they were in. We're trying to go back and restore as many of them as we can."
But Steele believes the promise of the future can compensate for the memories that were turned to ashes.
"Without the fire, Jones never would have passed a bond issue of this magnitude," he says. "Everyone's really eager to get into the new high school."
The building is scheduled to be finished in May 2010.