By Anthony Caciopo
Regional News Editor
Administrators and staff of School District 118 knew how to safely evacuate school buildings in case of emergency, and now they are confident in their plan of how to handle perhaps an even bigger task: the reunification of students with their parents if the school cannot be re-entered.
Last Thursday, more than 600 pre-kindergarten through 5th grade students filed out of Palos West School in Palos Park on command of an emergency tone and an announcement over the school intercom ordering them to “Evacuate the building.”
“This is the first time we’ve done this type of drill,” said Dr. Anthony Scarsella, Dist. 118 superintendent. “We’ve been preparing two years to do this drill today.”
After exiting the school, the Palos West population went to “mustering points,” as described by Justin Veihman, business manager.
There, teachers held aloft different colored cards to indicate the status of the class.
“A green card means ‘we’re good;’ a red card means ‘we’re missing’ and a yellow card means “I have an extra,’” he explained.
Accounting for all students at the mustering points went without a hitch, officials reported, and it was time for the walk to Peace Memorial Church where another mustering point had been established.
After receiving a go-ahead from Principal Jennifer Peloquin-Biel, students and all staff began an orderly procession south on 104th Avenue, which was closed by law enforcement for the drill.
Peace Memorial, at 10300 W. 131st St., was more than a quarter mile away. Palos West staff prepared the students for reunification.
Twenty parent volunteers were ready to pick up their children, but it wasn’t as easy as screeching up in the Chevy Suburban, letting the child jump in and taking off.
“We keep the students separated from their parents (initially),” said Veihman. “The parent or designated emergency contact shows up, is greeted in the parking lot, fills out a reunification card and has identification checked against the student, verifying that you’re authorized to make the pick-up.
“Then, you’ll be taken into a secure reunification room where a runner would get your student, bring the student back to you and then you’d exit back to your car,” he said.
“This is extremely thought out,” said Supt. Scarsella. “Everyone has lanyards, badges, what their role is. It’s an emotionally charged environment. Everyone is going to want to come and get their kids right away.
“We want to release them as fast as possible but it’s got to be in an efficient, safe way. That’s what we’re practicing today.”
The parent volunteers were summoned to the church with a phone message blast. In case of a true emergency, said Scarsella, social media including Twitter and Facebook would be used to get messages to parents, but that’s not without its potential pitfalls.
“One of our biggest challenges when we’re working through a crisis situation is social media,” said Scasella, “trying to make sure that accurate information is getting out in a timely manner.”
And in a decidedly low-tech move, staff at the reunification point may also use paper and pen as part of their duties, if necessary.
“In a real emergency, we’re not sure if we can trust technology, so here’s a binder,” said Veihman. “What’s your name? Cross it off.”
At last Thursday’s drill, with only 20 parent volunteers picking up only 20 students from the population of 600-plus, the procedure went smoothly and all the remaining students and staff were soon on their way back to school on foot.
A fleet of district-owned buses and district-employed drivers can also be used if needed. According to administrators, 95 to 98 percent of Dist. 118 students are bused to school.
“Not many school district still have their own buses,” said Scarsella. “We would have our buses here in the event of a real emergency if we had to transport kids any further.”
The buses could also be used to block the roads outside Palos West, Palos East and Palos South, a task handled during the drill by Cook County Sheriff’s officers.
Following the drill, Scarsella had high praise for all involved.
“Our staff and our kids did a phenomenal job, even with the heat,” he said. “We plan on doing this drill at all our schools.”
Scarsella offered public thanks to Principal Peloquin-Biel as well as Assistant Principal Rose White and the parent volunteers.
“We also want to thank the first responders,” he said. “We’re very fortunate to work with some outstanding police departments: Cook County, Palos Park, Palos Heights and Palos Hills, and with Palos Fire and North Palos Fire.”
Scarsella said “We want to take as many scenarios as we can think of and practice them. If we continue to practice them, in the event of a real emergency, we’ll be ready.”