School Campus Seen as Safe Place to Be During Earthquakes

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Laine Yarber teaches English and journalism at Santa Monica High School

To death and taxes, you can add one more thing to the certainties-of-life list if you live in California: earthquakes.

Seismic experts generally agree that a catastrophic quake is due, perhaps overdue, in Southern California. There will be deaths, injuries, and huge disruptions in communication, transportation and delivery of goods and services.

What if your child is in school when the Big One hits? It's a good idea to know the school's preparations and procedures for an earthquake.

Most schools are safer and better prepared to take care of your child than you might expect.

In fact, a campus is one of the safest places to be during a quake "because of the buildings themselves," said Johanna Chase, a health teacher and adviser of the Disaster Preparedness Club at Santa Monica High School.

"They're probably safer than anything else because they must adhere to specific state, county and city regulations."

Earthquake preparation is mandated by the Katz Act, a 1984 state law that requires all public and private schools to conduct earthquake drills every year.

A typical drill is signaled by a special bell pattern. Staff and students duck under tables or desks, then wait for another bell signal before evacuating to a sports field or other outdoor area.

The Katz Act also requires that schools keep food, water and first-aid supplies on hand--usually enough to last about three days.

Of course, there are huge differences between a drill and a real earthquake.

The "duck, cover and wait" response would still be used, but without bell signals. And evacuation would probably occur from dark halls, classrooms and bathrooms because a major earthquake will probably knock out power.

Phones lines would probably be down--and if not, they'd be jammed--so calls to or from the school would be impossible.

But your child would be well supervised until you could get to him or her because the law allows school districts to detain staff members indefinitely for supervisorial duties during a disaster.

An important point: Students can be released only to parents or guardians, not to siblings or other relatives. School perimeters would typically be locked and patrolled so that students could not leave on their own either.

Injuries are a virtual certainty in the Big One, said Cheryl Bader, a nurse at Santa Monica High School who worked at Alhambra High School during the 1986 Whittier quake.

"We'll have one or two heart attacks . . . one or two fatalities by something falling on them," Bader predicted. "There will also be a lot of cuts from glass."

Panic and inadequate preparation will be the main causes of these injuries, Bader said.

"The (Alhambra) kids who were injured were those who panicked and ran when the shaking started," she said. "In the classrooms where kids ducked and covered, there weren't any injuries."

Chase agreed. "It's not like a fire, where you have to make a mad rush to exit. Just protect yourself as things are falling and shaking, and then get out."

Despite the importance of preparation, too many teachers still view earthquake drills as trivial, Chase said.

She finds that teachers who are native Californians are especially careless about knowing emergency procedures and reviewing them with students.

"They've been here their whole lives, they've survived a number of quakes, and they just feel it's no big deal," she said.

Classroom safety also is too often ignored.

It is not unusual to see classrooms with objects that could fall, such as bookcases, filing cabinets or boxes. They should be kept below head level.

Smaller objects, such as books, staplers and computers, are also dangerous because they can easily become speedy projectiles.

Bader said a teacher was once hurt by a globe. "A globe isn't heavy, but it flies at a tremendous amount of speed," she said.

"Teachers need to take the dangers more seriously," Chase said. "And students need to understand that they have a responsibility to participate with the system--not against it."

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