Oklahoma school emergency, classroom safety law confusing, toothless? 2NEWS Investigators dig in
8:30 PM, Nov 20, 2013
10:46 PM, Nov 20, 2013
It's been six months since a massive EF-5 tornado ripped through Moore killing 25 people, including seven children in the Plaza Towers Elementary School.
In the wake of that devastating tornado and the Newtown school shooting, state lawmakers beefed up the law intended to ensure children's safety in public schools during both manmade and natural disasters. A three-month 2NEWS Investigation found school officials and some emergency responders to be confused about what the law requires, which has delayed its implementation.
In September, the 2NEWS Investigators surveyed school districts in Tulsa, Washington, Wagoner and Creek counties. We found every district did have an emergency plan, but only 58 percent of the districts surveyed filed those plans with their County Emergency Management Office, as then required by law.
Among those that did not, include districts as large as Broken Arrow Public Schools and as small as Dewey Public Schools. We found those districts filing their plans with City Emergency Managers, like police and fire departments.
Said Dewey Superintendent David Wilkins: "I think there was some confusion on how that was supposed to be filed. I went back and looked it up on our accreditation report and it just said, 'with local official.'"
The 2NEWS Investigators found the confusion didn't go away after Nov. 1, when the new aspects of the law were introduced. Among the changes was a mandate each district annually review their emergency plans and file them with all emergency responders within the district's boundaries.
For some schools, the move brought about immediate improvements. Dewey Public Schools officials, for instance, discovered one of the district cafeterias didn't have an evacuation plan.
But for others, the headaches only mounted. The Investigators again called every district in Tulsa, Washington, Wagoner and Creek counties on Nov. 1 and found that most school systems had filed with some, but not all emergency responders.
Again Superintendent Wilkins cited confusion, saying the law "didn't specify exactly who it was to go to."
But the law does, in fact, speak to where the plans should be filed. Here's an excerpt from the law:
"Plans shall be reviewed and updated annually as appropriate by each school, administration building and institution of higher learning, and placed on file at each school district and each local emergency management response organization within the district, which may include police, fire, emergency medical services, sheriff and emergency management of the appropriate jurisdiction."
Some districts, including Sand Springs and Sperry, interpreted the law to mean plans only needed to be filed with their local police and fire departments, or that plans only had to go to their City or County Emergency Managers who could in turn give copies to all the other agencies.
However, that isn't true, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Education's attorney, Kim Richey. She says districts cannot pick and choose which agencies to file with or rely on anyone else to distribute their plans.
"The legal obligation lies on the school district to provide copies of those to every emergency agency residing in that district," she said earlier this month. "So, if a district is relying on a city manager or one specific agency to distribute those plans on behalf of the district, I think that puts the school district at risk of being out of compliance with the law."
We also found the misunderstanding about which agencies schools must file with isn't limited to school districts. Even Roger Jolliff, the director of the Tulsa Area Emergency Management Agency, said he thought schools didn't have to file with his office if they filed with their city's emergency manager.
"Any law is open to interpretation, and as this law's written it's somewhat vague, so you're going to have different interpretations," he said.
But that wasn't Joliff's only issue with the law, pointing to what he deemed a lack of consequences for failing to comply.
"You have a law with no enforcement agency to oversee it, and you have no attached penalty," he told the Investigators.
Joliff said his agency encourages schools to make plans, but in his words, the state currently has "no way to make them do that."