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Saudi Arabia

Safety in school buildings a top concern

More than a year after a fire at Jeddah’s Baraim Al-Watan Girls’ School left three teachers dead, schools and colleges throughout the Kingdom continue to struggle with adopting emergency safety plans.
Hatoon Al-Banan, an instructor at a private college in Jeddah, said the college she works for does not provide enough ways to adequately exit the building in case of an emergency.
“When I first joined the college, I remember the management planned to hold regular fire drills, so teachers would practice helping students leave the building without panicking,” she said. “Sadly the drills happened only twice during my four-year career here,” she added.
Following the November 2011 school fire, Civil Defense reported the facility lacked adequate emergency exits, safety equipment and the ground-floor windows were barred.
The lack of safety features prompted some teachers to complain about the situation.
Many boys’ schools are generally designed according to the mark while girls’ schools are usually housed in rented buildings that are not conducive to a learning environment.
Today, many public schools are still operating in rented buildings.
“This building is not fit for a school because it was supposed to be a residential building,” said a public school principal.
“All we can do is teach the students how to stay calm and exit the building without panicking, even though we have only one exit and more than 100 students,” she added.
Bayan Hussien, a mother of schoolgirls, said lack of emergency exits in most private schools frightens her.
“I am still searching for the best school for my girls. Apart from seeking for good education, parents also try to find a safe and secure learning environment,” she said.
“Most of the private schools for girls in Jeddah have attractive buildings. But when you try to open the emergency exit, you will find it is locked.”
Girls’ schools have tightly secured access to the campus. Fathers may drop off their daughters but rarely set foot on school grounds.
Generally, girls’ schools have high walls surround buildings with a single entry and exit. At the college and university level, women’s dormitories are often locked on weekends to prevent students from leaving campus.
Civil Defense and the Ministry of Education have organized campaigns to teach students and teachers how to behave during an emergency. No one takes these campaigns seriously, said Walaa Al-Ghamdi, a retired school principal.
“The owner of the school told me I should promote this campaign,” Ghamdi said. “Sadly this campaign hinged on posters and flyers. There was nothing active to look for. I don’t know why Civil Defense doesn’t follow up with the school to make sure the campaign plan is executed as agreed with the Ministry.”
Dar Al-Hekma College takes the safety and security of its students, staff, faculty and visitors seriously. It is one the few educational institutes that has a strong support system and offers training to their staff.
“Creating awareness of security and safety is of utmost important to us since human life is sacred. We plan to roll out the training to our Student Government team next year,” said Lamya Gazzaz, vice-dean of Student Affairs.
Reem Saklou, director of Support Services and Team Leader of Safety and Security said, “As part of our commitment to safety and security, we have so far trained 67 staff and faculty members on how to extinguish fires and deal with accidents and disasters.”
Maj. Gen. Hassan Abdullah Al-Zahrani, director of Safety at Civil Defense, said schools with iron fences and locked doors prevent emergency crews from entering buildings in case of an emergency.

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