May 23rd, 2013
10:19 PM ET

Students, teachers from tornado-leveled school say goodbye

By Josh Levs and Steve Almasy, CNN

(CNN) - The sign that covered a set of doors read, "We Love You Plaza Towers."

Children, toting big book bags and balloons, hugged their teachers and said goodbye before departing for the summer.

Many managed a smile despite the sad fact these end-of-the-year moments took place at Eastlake Elementary School because Plaza Towers is just a huge pile of rubble.

Kaylee Sanchez, a kindergartner who was shielded by one of her teachers as the storm plowed over Plaza Towers, said she was "freaking out" before going to Thursday's reunion.

But once she and the other children got there, laughter and playfulness returned to a group that suffered the worst when an EF5 tornado struck Monday.

Seven of their schoolmates were killed by the storm, which lead to 17 other deaths.

Kaylee's mother, Maria, applauded administrators for putting together the sendoff where students also received a backpack full of activities, snacks, stuffed animals and some basic necessities for the coming days.

"It's a really good thing because they get to see all their friends to make sure they are OK," Maria Sanchez said. "It's a good atmosphere to see the all these kids laughing and playing. ... My own daughter has been scared until today. When it started storming this morning she didn't want to come."

Pounding rain soaked Moore on Thursday morning, and winds sent pieces of debris flying, hindering recovery efforts three days after the devastating tornado.

Once she got there, Maria and the other children spilled around, and raced up to each other when they saw someone they had been worrying about.

Emily Stephens, a student at Plaza Towers, said she was in an underground shelter when the tornado hit.

"I just hope everyone's OK," she said. "I hope they get a new house - and a better one."

Stephens said "some of my house got ripped down."

She was happy to get the crayons, books and candy and, most importantly, see her classmates.

"It makes me glad to see my friends and that they're alive," she said.

Read the full story

May 22nd, 2013
10:28 AM ET

Inside a tornado-ravaged school

By Josh Levs, CNN

(CNN) - It was the end of the school day. The kids at Plaza Towers Elementary School were stuffing their backpacks, looking forward to going home, playing with friends, eating snacks.

But the tornado warnings changed that.

When the twister came barreling in Monday afternoon, terrified young students huddled together in the hallways, screaming as walls and roofs caved in. Chairs and backpacks swirled above them. The winds and blaring sounds enveloped them. Cars from the parking lot landed just inches away.

Teachers dove onto groups of kids to protect them from falling debris.

It was the biggest tornado they'd ever seen. Described as a lawn-mower blade spanning two miles, it shredded through their town.

A snapshot of courage after tornado levels school

"It was scary," student Julio Rodriguez told CNN. Teachers instructed the kids to crouch down, "and you covered your head with your hands," he demonstrated.

A first responder captured this photo at the scene of the devastated Plaza Elementary School in Moore, Oklahoma.

"I had to hold on to the wall to keep myself safe because I didn't want to fly away in the tornado," one little girl told KFOR.

The 17 mile-long twister stayed on the ground for 40 minutes.

By the time it was gone, so was the school in Moore, Oklahoma. In its place was a huge pile of rubble, trapping teachers and children.

How to help

And seven students were dead.

They were in a classroom, Moore Fire Department Chief Gary Bird told CNN Wednesday.

Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb told CNN Tuesday that the children were in a basement, where they drowned. But Bird said Wednesday that based on everything he's been told, "it had nothing to do with flooding."

In the tornado's wake, the school quickly became the epicenter of the tragedy in this shattered town, part of the metropolitan Oklahoma City area.

Read the full story

Posted by
Filed under: Oklahoma • School safety • Students • Teachers
March 4th, 2013
05:00 AM ET

School's transgender ruling: fairness or discrimination?

By Josh Levs, Ed Payne and Ashley Fantz, CNN

(CNN) - A Colorado school's ruling over a transgender child has sparked questions that could affect schools all over the country.

Which bathroom should be used by a child who identifies as a different gender from his or her body? Where's the line between accommodation and discrimination? At what point is a child old enough for that to even be an issue?

The case focuses on Coy Mathis, a 6-year-old born with a boy's body. She identifies as a girl, and her family is raising her as a girl.

In kindergarten, she used the girl's bathroom with no problem, the family says. But this year, with Coy in first grade, the principal called to set up a meeting to discuss bathroom use. In advance of the meeting, the family asked what the policies are.

"We were told that there were no written policies and that the options would be for Coy to use the boys' restroom or the staff bathroom or the nurse's bathroom for the sick children, which were both on the opposite end of the building," Coy's father, Jeremy Mathis, said on CNN's "Starting Point" on Thursday.

That "would stigmatize her, having to be the only one having to go to a different bathroom, so we weren't OK with that."

The family contacted the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. When an attorney with that group could not work something out with the school, the group filed a state civil rights complaint on the family's behalf.

In the meantime, Coy is being home schooled - partly because her parents fear bullies may make fun of her.

"The district firmly believes it has acted reasonably and fairly with respect to this issue," the school district's attorney, W. Kelly Dude, said in a written statement. "However, the district believes the appropriate and proper forum for discussing the issues identified in the charge is through the Division of Civil Rights process. The district is preparing a response to the charge which it will submit to the division. Therefore, the district will not comment further on this matter out of respect for the process which the parents have initiated."

The school calls Coy a girl as the family wishes, Dude said.

Read the full story

September 24th, 2012
01:00 PM ET

Dads ‘march’ to schools

by Josh Levs, CNN

(CNN) - Across the country, fathers are taking part in public events aimed at sending a critical message: Dads’ involvement in education is crucial for school children.

In New York, it’s become a state-wide celebration, appropriately entitled “Dads take your child to school.”

In parts of the country, the events are inspired by the “Million Father March.”

Numerous studies show that kids with involved fathers have all sorts of academic advantages, including better linguistics skills, an improved ability to handle stress, and some other “hidden benefits.”

Posted by
Filed under: At Home • Character education • Practice • video