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Schools revamp shelter areas after assessment

COLUMBUS, Ind. – A southern Indiana school district is changing where students and staff seek shelter from severe storms after a study found that some of its refuge sites weren't safe.

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. officials ordered the study of the district's 19 buildings after a deadly tornado struck a school complex in Henryville in March 2012 while some students and staff were still inside.

Though no one at the complex about 50 miles south of Columbus died, the storm destroyed the cafeteria and many school buses. Surveillance cameras captured the tornado wiping out the gymnasium in just seconds, collapsing the exterior wall.

"The doors became projectiles," Bill Jenson, the district's director of secondary education, told The Republic. "Just seeing some of those things happening so close spurred some of this."

The study by Indianapolis firm CSO Architects and Lynch, Harrison & Brumleve, a structural engineering firm, identified problem areas. They included the hallway near the entrance at Johnson Early Childhood Center, locker rooms at Mt. Healthy Elementary School and east-west corridors at Richards Elementary School.

Areas near the gymnasium and auditorium at the newly renovated Columbus North High School also were deemed unsafe for shelter.

"Columbus is known for its architecture, which is great, but sometimes it presents some problem areas," said Linda DeClue, assistant superintendent for human resources.

DeClue said each school will practice a drill with new shelter locations before tornado season begins in March.

Other districts are also reviewing their procedures. WISH-TV reported that Marion Community Schools audited all of its shelter locations last year and made changes in nearly every building. Other school districts use architects to help determine the safest places to go in a storm.

That's comforting to parents like Stacey Wessel.

"As a parent, it's always great to know your kids are being well looked after and safe," she said.

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