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After Challenger's evacuation

School officials find much to praise, but also room for improvement.

Published February 2, 2007

[Times photo: Keri Wiginton]
Principal Sue Stoops talks with concerned parents at Challenger K-8 last Friday, when an ammonia-like odor prompted a full evacuation. Stoops kept them updated by radio, though others wished that they could have gotten information by phone.

SPRING HILL - There were flashing lights in front of the school, and lots of police and anxious parents scanning the crowd, trying to find out if their child was safe.

No children were seriously hurt during last Friday's scare at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, when an ammonia-like odor prompted the evacuation of all 1,475 students. And officials have yet to find evidence of a true threat.

But 36 students went to the hospital as a precaution. Rescue and hazardous-materials crews from two counties responded to the scene, and hospitals went into full-out anthrax mode, white suits and all.

In hindsight, school officials found much to praise - along with a few areas for improvement - in their response to the crisis.

"Overall, we were very pleased with the way things went," principal Sue Stoops said.

On the afternoon of the emergency, she was surrounded by parents, fielding questions and trying to stay abreast of the situation.

"I was keeping them updated, I had my radio so they could hear what was going on," Stoops said. "They were not panicked, they were understanding of the situation."

One parent complained of trying to call the school and being unable to reach anyone for information, Stoops said. Several contacted the St. Petersburg Times with similar stories.

"I assumed that if my child was one of the children taken to the hospital, I would have received a phone call, but I could not be sure," Terri Clark, a Spring Hill resident, wrote in an e-mail, describing her rush from Crystal River to the school. "So please, forward the phones to a place where parents can get information."

That's what should have happened, said Barry Crowley, director of security for Hernando County schools.

"That was an error on our part," he said. "Every time something like this happens, they're supposed to transfer the phones over to the county office."

Stoops said that policy was news to her.

Each school has an automated system for sending recorded messages to families, but Crowley said it is used primarily for attendance purposes.

"We don't have that many lines going out to call all the parents in a timely manner," Stoops said. "I believe it would have taken 60 hours to notify all the parents using the BigMouth system."

Six county agencies, including the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, use an automated notification system called Code Red.

Ken Pritz, executive director of facility and support operations for the district, said that system might be worth a look if the schools want to send a quick message to every parent at a particular school, or all schools.

Worried parents

But Crowley said the school system has learned the hard way that sending out messages in the middle of a crisis can be counterproductive.

Worried parents rush to the school, blocking emergency vehicles and making it harder for teachers to match children with their parents.

"When we do an early call, everyone shows up whether we ask them to or not," he said. "There's too much of a risk of someone grabbing a kid in all the confusion."

He said the staff at Challenger brought emergency contact information and water outside, but forgot the snacks in case of a long wait.

"Everyone who's injured or at risk, the parents got an immediate phone call," Crowley added. "We don't wait."

Stoops said her staffers have held two debriefing meetings since the emergency to refine their procedures.

And teachers are talking with students about the cost of taking an ambulance ride you don't really need. Paramedics said only four children showed signs of true respiratory distress, but transported the 32 others to be safe, she said.

"I know pretty much in my heart that some of them did it just for the fun of riding in the ambulance," Stoops said. "But you err on the side of caution."

Tom Marshall can be reached at or 352 848-1431.

[Last modified February 2, 2007, 06:06:50]

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