School's 'bold call' may have saved children's lives
By William Croyle
MORNING VIEW — Kenton County School District Superintendent Terri Cox-Cruey spent Friday afternoon monitoring the tornadoes that could be headed her way.
It started as a warning, then escalated to a threat.
She was used to this, tornado drills and practices, working in the district that includes rural schools the past 12 years.
One storm touched down in Indiana. Then another was spotted moving through Eastern Kentucky.
By 3:35, another storm was pinpointed about 40 miles away in Carrollton.
School let out around 3:30 p.m. and buses throughout the 14,000 student district were already on the road, except for those at one school – Piner Elementary. The school was in the path of the storm.
Piner had eight buses and they were supposed to pull out at 3:41 p.m. Students had already started boarding five of them for the ride home on two-lane roads through farms and subdivisions.
Cox-Cruey had a decision to make: She could gamble that the buses could shuttle the kids safely home before the storm hit, or she could try to pull them back, hoping the children would be safer in the brick school.
She picked school.
She called Piner Principal Christi Jefferds.
Pull them back, she told her.
Jefferds agreed and they rushed the children back into their classrooms. Teachers did head counts in their classrooms and then moved children into the cinder-block hallway in the back of the building.
Students from first grade through fifth grade sat along the wall. The preschool and kindergarten children aren’t in school on Fridays, and some children were picked up by their parents at dismissal.
It turned out this last-minute decision may have prevented more lives from being lost.
“The superintendent and principal made a bold call,” said Kenton County Judge-Executive Steve Arlinghaus. “That was paramount in saving those children.”
The tornado hit Piner and the surrounding rural areas. The school sits about three miles from the neighborhood that would end up being the hardest hit.
But inside the school, teachers and staff didn’t know about the destruction around them.
They waited. And a school staff member sent out an automated call to parents to let them know they were keeping the kids.
“That’s when parents started calling,” Jefferds said.
“Some wanted to come and get their kids. All we could tell them was that the weather was real bad and we couldn’t advise them to do that, but it was their call.”
Some parents came anyway and wound up staying. About 350 students, staff and parents crammed the hallway.
They stayed for two hours.
The power went off during that time, forcing emergency lights on.
When the county’s emergency siren sounded, everybody crouched down into the position they had been taught to get in just three days earlier during a tornado drill.
When the siren was off, they did their best to have some fun to pass the time.
“Our students did so extremely well,” Jefferds said. “The teachers entertained them, read them some books, told them some stories.”
At about 5:15 p.m., the children went back to their classrooms, used the bathrooms and were given snacks.
They remained there while the roads were assessed, and it was dark before most of them were taken home by bus.
Only one bus came back with students. There were seven of them; the roads to get to their homes were closed.
Parents of two of the kids were located and able to come to the school.
The other five were eventually taken to Piner Baptist Church, which was set up as a shelter, where their parents came to get them. It was about 9:30 p.m. before every student was with a parent.
“Everything went as planned,” Cox-Cruey said. “If we could have reunited kids with their families sooner, then everything would have been even smoother, but our primary goal was their safety.”
Jefferds said about 20 students’ homes were completely destroyed or uninhabitable.
School was open Monday, though not so much for classes. The day was spent assessing who needed help, and providing counselors for those who needed them.
Jefferds said everyone, including district staff, school staff and bus drivers, did an excellent job in a difficult situation, and she felt everything that was done was “the best we could have done given the situation.”
“If we did send kids home, they could have been home alone during the storm,” Jefferds said.
That’s why Arlinghaus said Cox-Cruey and Jefferds deserve a “gold medal” for their decision to keep the kids at school.
“If a tornado hadn’t hit, some parents probably would have criticized them for keeping the kids, but they stuck to their guns and did the right thing,” Arlinghaus said. “If those children had been taken home, how many of them might not be with us today?”