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Healdton students weather storms in bulletproof shelters

Healdton Elementary School students crowd into a shelter designed to withstand severe weather and gunfire during a drill. [Photo provided]

Healdton Elementary School students crowd into a shelter designed to withstand severe weather and gunfire during a drill. [Photo provided]

Four years ago, Healdton schools Superintendent Terry Shaw sat inside a layered steel shelter and chatted with the man who built it while two men with rifles pelted the outside with bullets.

"It was very surreal," he said. "Outside, it almost sounded like there we firecrackers in a can. It was like someone was lightly tapping on the outside of it, like they were knocking."

The steel capsule was a demonstration model for a new breed of school shelter: one that's designed to withstand not only the force of a powerful tornado, but also rounds fired from any pistol or rifle. In 2014, Healdton became the first school district in the nation to acquire the shelters.

Built from layered steel filled with a number of materials such as Kevlar, the shelters sit in corners of the school's classrooms. The shelters are blue and white, the school's colors. On the outside of the riveted capsule hangs student artwork and school insignia. The interiors are lighted, carpeted and fitted with padded benches, with circulating air systems and monitors so those inside can see what's happening outside.

"They've become an extension of the classroom," Shaw said. "The kids go in there and read and do their math games."

The shelters are manufactured by a Utah company called Shelter in Place.

"They're bulletproof little panic rooms," said James Haslem, the president of the company.

Haslem came up with idea after watching footage of the 2013 Moore tornado that killed 25 people, including seven children inside Plaza Towers Elementary. The company has had a surge of inquiries since the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 students and teachers dead, he said.

Healdton bought the districts nine shelters — seven for the elementary school and two for the middle school — using with funds from a bond issue and a donation, Shaw said. The idea is to install the shelters directly in classrooms so students don't have to travel across a school building either during a tornado or an active-shooter situation.

The ones in the elementary school are designed to hold 35 children and two adults, but can fit more if needed. For the middle school of 100 students, the two larger shelters can fit nearly 180 students each, in case the elementary students are in the gym or cafeteria when trouble arises, Shaw said.

Students run drills in the shelters 10 to 12 times during a school year, Shaw said. So far, the district has never had to use them in a real-world incident.

"This is something you're glad to have and hope you never have to use," he said.

Plans to add shelters in the high school are in the works. But that building has a basement and two underground locker rooms to use during severe weather, Shaw said.

"Now, with the nature of our culture, it's sad that we even have to worry about a safe room," Shaw said. "To me, one life saved is well worth it."

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