Students huddle in the corner of a windowless corridor during a tornado drill in February. Eastside Elementary held a tornado drill Thursday afternoon. According to Principal Emily Baker, on April 27th, 2011, the students had to stay crouched in the halls for more than half an hour during that day's severe weather. Baker said that the school conducts a tornado drill in the spring and fall, as well as an intruder drill and the mandatory monthly fire drills.Photo by Jake Daniels.
When threatening weather became imminent March 2, children in many Hamilton and Bradley county schools filed into interior hallways and knelt with heads low and hands over the backs of their necks, just as they learned in drills.
When the National Weather Service switched from "tornado watch" to "tornado warning," Cleveland and Bradley County schools went into lockdown and children were not allowed to leave.
Parents coming to Cleveland and Bradley County schools during the tornado warning period were invited inside for shelter, but were told their children could not be released until the warning was lifted.
That rule prompted some parents to call and complain to school board members, but board members said they support the decision.
On Monday, parents will receive a letter from Martin Ringstaff, director of city schools, explaining the school system's action.
"Once a warning occurs, we will move all students into a safe place and will not be releasing them until the warning is lifted," according to Ringstaff's letter.
Parents may pick up children before the warning and after the warning is lifted, he said.
In Hamilton County, the ultimate decision on whether a child is released belongs to the parent, said Lee McDade, assistant superintendent with Hamilton County Schools.
"You have to have a little luck along with doing the things you practice," said McDade.
On March 2, "we monitored the weather and saw the storms pop up and grow in intensity," he said.
Hamilton County decided not to release children early, except to parents who came to the schools, he said, because it takes about an hour to get buses to all the schools and about three hours to run all the routes.
Hamilton school officials knew there would time to bus children home between the first storm, which came through about noon, and others expected to hit late in the afternoon, McDade said.
Tornadoes touched down around Harrison, Snow Hill and Ooltewah, but there were no hits on schools in the area, he said.
"I never really had an issue about picking up my kids," said Christy Lindsay, whose children attend Thrasher Elementary School and Signal Mountain High School. "But the pickup was after the storm, and it went smoothly."
In previous storms, she said, parents have sat in the car line and waited.
"It was not so much a problem as confusion," said Thrasher Elementary parent Rhiannon Moss.
Automated phone calls from the school announced that children could be released early, she said, but broadcast reports were warning not to pick up the children.
Bradley County schools did the same thing as Cleveland schools, going into lockdown during the tornado warning period. Parents who showed up during that time were invited inside to wait out the warning with their children instead.
"I went and got mine at 10 o'clock that morning," said Blythe-Bower Elementary School parent Trina Wright. "I also live in a mobile home and I said, 'We are leaving right now.'"
Cleveland school officials said they stand by the district's policy.
"We wouldn't turn the children loose if a bank robber was somewhere outside," said Cleveland board member Steve Morgan. "We wouldn't turn them loose while a tornado was on the loose, either."
Randall Higgins covers news in Cleveland, Tenn., for the Times Free Press. He started work with the Chattanooga Times in 1977 and joined the staff of the Chattanooga Times Free Press when the Free Press and Times merged in 1999. Randall has covered Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Alabama. He now covers Cleveland and Bradley County and the neighboring region. Randall is a Cleveland native. He has bachelor’s degree from Tennessee Technological University. His awards ...