Is AISD Ready for Disaster?

The Austin Independent School District (AISD) has an important role to play when disaster strikes. In conjunction with the Red Cross, high school gyms can serve as hurricane evacuation centers, and cafeterias can feed thousands. Even Toney Burger Center would be used in the event that Austin must harbor political or war refugees. The school district's bus fleet may also serve the rest of the county or city in an emergency. But with campus security and safety increasingly on the minds of parents, teachers, and students, AISD's internal preparedness poses another problem. What happens if a school receives a bomb threat? What if a tornado were coming? Can campus personnel prevent student violence or stop outside intruders?

Although the district has developed a centralized plan for taking on school emergencies, the state of readiness of an individual campus is left entirely in the hands of that school's principal. Each campus is responsible for devising its own contingency plan. But since very little districtwide, in-service training has been devoted to apprising campus personnel on emergency procedures, it is not clear that every school in AISD is ready to meet an unexpected crisis.

Historically, increases in AISD campus security are merely a response to some previous event - not a preventive measure. Ortega Elementary School, in East Austin, is a prime example of the district's tendency to react after the fact. The school was broken into many times, car thieves routinely used the campus as an impromptu "chop shop," and children would arrive mornings to see dead animals dismembered, with blood scrawled on Ortega's outside walls. Once, a stranger wandered onto the playground, displaying a gun. An apparent misunderstanding at AISD's police dispatch center prevented officers from arriving on the scene for 30 minutes; in the meantime, a teacher had convinced the gunman to leave. It was after this incident that a nine-foot fence, topped by razor wire, was installed around the campus. Many people, said principal Lynda Tynsley, still don't understand that the fence is intended to keep people out, rather than keep the children in.

In 1994, the district made a good first step in helping principals improve campus safety by publishing a new School Safety and Emergency Resource Manual. It comes with a quick flip chart of emergency procedures for everything from bomb threats to natural disasters, which is to be kept within easy reach at each school. AISD officials, along with parent and teacher groups, developed the plan with the help of the city's fire and police departments. Statewide interest in the manual has been high and the document has served as a model for many other school districts in Texas, said Scott Wyatt, AISD's risk management specialist. A written plan is crucial to an effective emergency management system - information stored on computer may be unretrievable under certain emergencies. But the manual alone won't help the principal who hasn't had any training. And no one in AISD central administration could say with certainty that every campus is equally prepared for a crisis.

A series of Safe Schools Community Forums, which will conclude May 4, is intended to help schools develop a uniform plan for campus safety - whether the threat comes from a natural disaster, or from gang violence. Training for all faculty will be in place by Spring 1996, said Bill Perry, AISD's school-community liaison. But another safety problem can only be solved with money: not all of AISD's 96 schools have automatic fire alarm systems.

In 1993, a performance review of AISD by Texas State Comptroller John Sharp revealed that 26 schools had manual systems, eight had partial systems, and 30 had none at all. The reason for the disparity is that fire code requirements have changed over the years. New or remodeled schools are fully protected; old and middle-aged schools are in compliance, but only with the older fire codes. The estimated cost of installing automatic fire and intrusion protection systems in all schools is almost $1.5 million.

This finding was not listed in Sharp's report as a recommended improvement for AISD, only as something that the authors of the report noticed. Ostensibly, the reason for this is that AISD has long planned to include that $1.5 million in a bond package. AISD bond committee chairman Mel Waxler said he thinks the committee will come forward with that recommendation within the next several weeks, when it issues its final report.

Nonetheless, many people didn't know about the problem AISD has had with fire protection. Bob Runkel, special services supervisor for the AISD police department, said that five more schools have received full fire protection in the last two years. Even so, the district has a long way to go before all its school buildings - including 500-plus portable buildings - are completely covered. "The district spends more on carpet than life safety," Runkel said bitterly. "Most people assume the protection is there, and they're appalled when they find out [otherwise]."

While she did not downplay the crisis, AISD Board of Trustees President Kathy Rider said that an emergency request for funds to immediately rectify any fire safety situation has never been brought before the board. "If we've got children and staff in an unsafe situation, we're going to respond to that," she said. She stressed how important the upcoming bond issue will be in overall facilities improvement.

And what if the bonds aren't passed? "We'll just keep nickel-and-diming it," sighed Runkel.

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