I remember how terribly heartbreaking it was to read the newspapers or watch the newscasts in the wake of the Moore tornado on May 20 of last year. Each new detail seemed more painful than the one before. Then came the devastating news that seven children had lost their lives when the tornado roared through Plaza Towers Elementary School.
Suddenly a day that had begun like any other — kids arriving at school, parents leaving for work — had turned dark. The weight of the loss was crushing. It seemed almost unfathomable that these impacted communities in central Oklahoma would be able to recover. But as Oklahomans have done time and again, people came together. People all across the state offered help. They made donations to relief organizations. They contributed everything from bottled water to temporary housing. They prayed.
Nowhere was that selflessness more apparent than inside Plaza Towers and Briarwood, the Moore schools hit hardest by the tornado. In the days that followed, we learned about teachers who did everything they could to keep their kids safe. We learned about Jennifer Doan, who used her own body to shield her third-graders at Plaza Towers and suffered painful injuries in the process.
We learned about Anna Canaday and Jessica Simonds. Both teachers were pinned under a car when they draped themselves over students in order to protect them. We learned about Paula Fauble and her colleagues at Briarwood who did the same. Every single teacher and staff member who was in those schools is a hero. They are a testament to the love all educators have for their students.
Just like everyone else, we struggled with the pain experienced by so many families. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the extent of the destruction I saw as I joined Gov. Fallin and others to survey the tornado-ravaged areas. While it was inspirational to see thousands of strangers helping out in the storm’s wake, nothing can undo the tragedies that played out during those horrible weeks in May.
If we can learn anything from that time, it is that safe schools are absolutely essential. For its part, the Oklahoma State Department of Education checks to ensure that every school has safety plans and runs safety drills regularly. Some schools have added shelters and safe rooms. Gov. Fallin has a proposal working its way through the legislative process to make it easier for districts to seek safety funds. Meanwhile, some private donors have put up their own money to build storm shelters in schools.
This week should be a time of reflection for us all. Let us remember and mourn the loss of too many lives in May, 2013. But let us also recall the kindnesses and compassion that followed and give thanks to those who risked their lives to save others. My prayers are with everyone touched by this tragedy.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction