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Class Notes

A Primer in Earthquake Preparedness for Students and Their Parents

January 27, 1994|MARY LAINE YARBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Laine Yarber teaches English at Santa Monica High School

Most students have returned to school after last week's earthquake, and many wonder what may happen if a strong aftershock or a new quake hits while they're at school.

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It's not news to any of us that seismic experts say a catastrophic quake even stronger than last Monday's could strike Southern California, causing more deaths, injuries and disruptions in communication, transportation and delivery of goods and services than occurred last week.

What if your child is in school when the Big One hits?

The good news is that most schools are safer and better prepared to take care of your child than you may think. Indeed, a campus is one of the safer places to be during a quake.

Schools are "probably safer than anything else because they must adhere to specific state, county and city regulations," said Johanna Chase, a disaster preparedness specialist at Santa Monica High School.

Earthquake preparation is mandated by the Katz Act, a 1984 state law that requires all public and private schools to conduct annual earthquake drills. The law also requires that schools keep food, water and first-aid supplies on hand, generally enough to last three days. (Even so, students would be wise to keep extra water and food in their backpacks, lockers or desks.)

Of course, there are major differences between a drill and a real earthquake. The "duck, cover and wait" exercise would be used in the real thing, but without bell signals. And evacuation would probably occur from dark halls, classrooms and bathrooms because a loss of power would be likely.

Phone lines would probably be down, as they were for many areas last week, so calls to or from the school would be virtually impossible.

But your child would be well supervised until you could reach him or her because state law allows school districts to detain staff members for at least 72 hours for supervisorial duties during a disaster.

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

Injuries are a certainty in a large quake, mostly due to panic and inadequate preparation. It's crucial that students stay under desks or tables while things are shaking and falling around them. Leaving a room during the quake is asking for cuts, bruises or more severe injuries.

Despite the importance of preparation, too many teachers have traditionally viewed earthquake drills as trivial and bothersome, Chase said. I suspect, however, that few will yawn through them now.

Classroom safety has also been largely ignored and should be reviewed by teachers. It is not unusual to see classrooms with objects that could fall, such as bookcases, filing cabinets or boxes. These should be kept below head level; any object taller than three feet is a potential hazard and should be bolted or braced. Smaller objects, such as books, staplers and computers, are dangerous because they can become speedy projectiles.

"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 (work) against it."

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