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Mt. Pleasant tests student safety during mass-evacuation drill

Jamie Martines
| Friday, Sept. 22, 2017, 6:42 p.m.

Imagine a smoke-filled classroom, a fire at the end of the hall and the unseen threat of a gas leak and impending explosion.

How do you get about 1,000 middle and high school students to safety in minutes?

That's what the Mt. Pleasant Area Junior-Senior High School tried to figure out Friday, conducting the school's first emergency mass-evacuation drill.

Students throughout the district also dedicated a half-day of school to practicing fire drills as well as internal and external lockdowns.

The drills are carefully coordinated but also intentionally messy, said Ken Williams, emergency management coordinator and director of technology integration. It's a way to identify holes in their emergency plans before a real emergency.

“This is a learning experience in itself,” Williams said. “It's how to keep students safe and everybody in a safe environment.”

The time away from the classroom is a worthwhile investment, he said. The mass-evacuation drill Friday was completed in under an hour, and students were dismissed for a half-day of school as it was completed.

“Safety first, education second,” Williams said.

Such drills are meant to benefit students and adults in the building, including teachers, administrators, secretaries, maintenance and security staff. Even bus drivers played a role during Friday's drill, adjusting routes to dismiss students efficiently and keeping them out of the way of emergency vehicles that could be arriving.

These days, school safety goes beyond thinking about the occasional fire drill to include considering things like building security cameras, secure check-in procedures for visitors, online bullying and testing water for lead and other contaminants, Superintendent Timothy Gabauer said.

The district has its own police force comprised of two full-time officers and one part-time officer. All three have full arrest powers.

At the end of the day, the district's goal is to make sure kids are safe and reunited with their parents after an emergency, Gabauer added.

This safety day was the product of collaboration between administrators and the district's safety and security committee, which the school board established about four years ago, Board President Robert Gumbita said. About 20 school community members — administrators, board members, local police and borough representatives — meet several times each year to discuss how to keep students safe at school.

Safety committee member John Sarnese observed the drill from the top tier of the football stadium, watching as students evacuated the building and proceeded to check-in points and dismissal locations.

“For their first one, I think this is a step in the right direction,” he said.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at jmartines@tribweb.com, 724-850-2867 or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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