One day earlier this spring, it was the last period at Galena Park High School in East Harris County.
Tenth grader Rocio Chavez was in algebra class.
“Suddenly, like, the announcement came on and told me, like, ‘This is not a drill.’ We’re like, ‘Oh no!’ I got scared. I was like, ‘What is this; what’s happening?’”
Rocio and all the other students had to stay in their classrooms for about half an hour.
“The teacher turned off the lights and, like, we sat in the corner. Because at first we thought it was the drill where an intruder comes in. But the teacher, like, looked out the window and saw that other classes were just still working, so she was like, ‘Get back to work!’ And we were like,’ ugh!’”
The intruder was a nasty smell in the air. People feared it was a toxic gas. Turns out it was a false alarm.
Cheryl Vital is the director of security and emergency management at Galena Park Independent School District in east Harris County. Vital also serves on the local emergency planning committee, or LEPC, which includes local industry and other officials. She says they coordinate to prepare for an emergency.
Cheryl Vital directs security and emergency management at the Galena Park Independent School District.
“Recently we had a scare. We had a mercaptan release. Mercaptan is the chemical that gives an odor to gas.”
Galena Park High School is one of three schools that are just blocks away from the edge of the Houston Ship Channel. The industrial complex houses refineries and petrochemical plants.
That’s why the school district had already practiced with the local emergency planning committee.
“And they also got a chance to realize how difficult it is to shelter over 1,000 people for an extended period of time. So it gave them the awareness they want to lift it as safely and prudently possible and not just say, ‘Let’s just take care of a lot of things and oh, yeah, let’s get back to the schools.’”
Vital says if there’s a dangerous leak, she gets an alert on her computer and cell phone, with the risk level, type of chemical and wind direction.
There’s also a hotline people can call.
“For community warning information, including how to shelter in place, press one.”
The problem is there are gaps in the safety code for Texas schools.
Victoria Calder directs the Texas School Safety Center in San Marcos.
“We can say how many have a plan. Some of those plans are absolutely beautifully done; they could be models for the nation. And some are pretty well written on a napkin.”
Another issue is the safety code says schools must drill, but doesn’t give specific instructions.
“But it doesn’t say how many or what kind. So when the Texas Education Code says you must conduct drills and exercises, some districts may say we do our monthly fire drills.”
She recommends at least one basic safety drill a month.
The majority of Texas school districts do practice sheltering in place at all or most of their campuses once a semester. But 15 percent of districts don’t practice that at all, according to the latest state report.
To improve safety, state Sen. Kel Seliger, a Republican from Amarillo, wants to create a school safety task force.
“This school task force will consider recommendations from school safety personnel and those first responders, emergency managers and try to distill things down to best practices.”
Practice can’t prevent everything.
The same day as the false alarm in Galena Park, there was a tragic incident in West, Texas, where a fertilizer plant exploded near two schools.
Victoria Calder saw a report about the explosion.
“And it showed the school and the devastation and the building inside and if school had been in session, there would have been little to no survivability in that building.”
She says it underscores how important it is to prepare for an emergency when a community lives side-by-side with dangerous chemicals.