published Monday, September 9th, 2013

Georgia schools fail in disaster preparation

A national group appointed by the president says that Georgia schools are not properly prepared for disasters, something local education officials dispute.

On Wednesday, the National Commission on Children and Disasters released a report that looks at how states require emergency plans in four situations: evacuating students, reuniting those students with their parents, accounting for students with special needs and preparing for multiple hazards at a K-12 school.

Tennessee and Alabama are two of 28 states in the nation to pass all four requirements in the 2013 Report Card on Children in Disasters. Georgia, however, only passed one requirement: preparing for multiple hazards at a K-12 school.

Only six other states are as bad as Georgia, according to the report. Four states are worse: Idaho, Iowa, Kansas and Michigan.

Officials at some area schools said they feel prepared for an emergency -- regardless of the commission's grade.

Catoosa County Schools Superintendent Denia Reese said the Georgia Emergency Management Agency has approved safety plans at each of her schools. Teachers and administrators know how to lead children out of their buildings and how to get them back into their parents' arms, she said.

"Catoosa County Public Schools utilizes the GEMA template to ensure that our school safety plans meet the highest standards," she said in a statement.

The National Commission on Children and Disasters was formed after Hurricane Katrina to prepare schools for similar emergencies. The panel argues that if you don't meet its requirements, a bad situation can become worse.

Children can get lost. Or be stuck in a place without enough food. Or miss out on necessary medicine.

To meet the commission's standards, states must demand that schools have plans for handling emergencies, and that these plans are up to par with the best states in the nation. There must be state laws in place, or the agencies that oversee the school must make the requirements.

Child care providers, for example, must have written plans for moving kids out of their building when it is necessary. These plans must show how the staff will respond to different types of emergencies, like a shooting or a tornado.

They must have written plans for notifying parents during a disaster. And for how to reunite parents and children. And the plans must be specific for different age groups, because you shouldn't treat a 6-year-old like a 16-year-old, according to the commission.

The states also must require their schools and other child care providers to have policies for helping students with disabilities. And they must have plans for how to handle several disasters at once.

Matt Cordoza, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education, said the three areas in which the state failed -- evacuating children, reuniting them with their families, and accounting for children with disabilities -- are not his department's responsibility. Those, he said, should be taken care of by the Department of Early Care and Learning.

That department could not be reached for comment Friday.

Eric Beavers, a spokesman for Whitfield County Schools, said the district has a safety team that meets once a month and a "reunification team" that meets once a year. Plans differ from school to school, but each school has a partnership with its local emergency management agency.

"I do not know if the great relationships we have with our local law enforcement agencies and emergency officials are required by law," he said. "However, I do know they are always there when we need them, and we are thankful."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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