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Site of planned Cleveland, Tenn., elementary school

Cleveland, Tenn.'s newest elementary school may be, structurally speaking, one of the safest in the nation when it opens in 2015.

The school, still in the conceptual stage, will include a reinforced safe room in each classroom. The closet-type rooms will lock from the inside, providing protection from storms and intruders alike.

Both natural and manmade threats at schools weighed on the nation's consciousness during the 2012-13 academic year, when 26 innocents were gunned down in a Newtown, Conn., school and the bodies of seven children were pulled out of an Oklahoma elementary school that took a direct hit from an EF5 tornado.

Cleveland officials think their plan will protect against both threats. And, unlike some other proposals to bolster school safety, system Superintendent Martin Ringstaff said the 30 or so safe rooms won't break the bank. The cost is mostly in additional square footage. Even while aiming to cut the school's cost from about $18 million to $15 million, Ringstaff says the rooms will be affordable and cost efficient.

"It was just one of those genius ideas," Ringstaff said. "We can't believe we hadn't thought of it before."

The reinforced rooms, each about 140 square feet, will have shelving for everyday storage. But within seconds, students and teachers can file into the rooms, which will have hardened walls, doors and ceilings. And if the plan comes to fruition, Cleveland would find itself at the forefront of school safety measures.

"I would say that's pretty rare," said architect Irene Nigaglioni, who is also chairwoman of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, an association of contractors, architects and school officials involved in the design, construction and maintenance of school facilities. "We don't see that."

Her firm designs schools in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, some in the thick of Tornado Alley. But she's never heard of a school putting a safe room in each classroom.

But with such interest in school safety, both in the context of nature and manmade mayhem, Nigaglioni said more schools are looking for spaces that can serve both purposes. That could prove especially useful in a case like Newtown, where an armed shooter arrived with no notice.

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Dr. Martin Ringstaff, director of Cleveland City Schools


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"If you have the ability to lock a space from the inside so a person can go in and hide, it gives you time," she said. "When you have a tornado coming you have a 15-minute warning. But when you have an active shooter, you only have a few seconds."

In the tornadoes of April 2011, nine people were killed in Bradley County and more than 600 homes were damaged or destroyed.

Some schools in more tornado-prone parts of the country have invested heavily in storm shelters -- the Wichita, Kan., school system spent $45 million to build safe rooms in 69 of its buildings in 2008. But they are the exception, not the rule.

A 1999 tornado in Moore, Okla., sparked hundreds of homeowners in the Oklahoma City suburb to install underground storm shelters. But many schools, including the one where seven children died this year, were unprotected during the May 20 storm that tossed cars and toppled buildings. A billion-dollar effort is under way to put a shelter in the 1,600 Oklahoma schools that were without in May. The nonprofit S.O.S., short for Shelter Oklahoma Schools, has so far raised about $1 million to equip every school and community with a safe haven.

But schools that build safe rooms typically make them large, communal spaces. Plainview School in Rainsville, Ala., is home to a 49-ton prefabricated, concrete and rebar shelter sunk five feet into the ground. Schools built in Alabama after July 2010 are mandated to have an approved safe space or hallway.

Some Texas schools are putting in smaller shelters to be shared by 10 or so classrooms, Nigaglioni said.

But most schools in our area, including Hamilton County, have no designated storm shelters or safe rooms. So a school with a shelter in each classroom is practically unheard of, said Brian Templeton, principal architect at the Upland Design Group in Crossville, Tenn., which is designing Cleveland's new school.

"This is really a new approach," Templeton said. "It's usually a space where you can basically take the whole school population. This is more localized. The idea is that there would be less panic."

And nowadays, school safety is at the forefront of new school design and construction.

"I think it's a topic that school board members, teachers and the general public are interested in," Templeton said.

But like anything else with the nation's education system, priorities, funding and capabilities can vary among states, districts and even schools.

"One school system can be very engaged. And the one right next to it can decide not to do anything. School systems and communities are individual thinkers, and they do their own things," said David Waggoner, a North Carolina architect and vice chairman of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International.

Waggoner says storm shelters are increasingly being included in new school construction plans, though he's not heard of schools making a shelter for protection from weather and intruders.

"It could very well be a leading-edge school in terms of designing a safe facility," he said. "I think that's a pretty interesting solution."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at or 423-757-6249.