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NORMAL — Most schools have a response plan in place for a natural disaster or threat, but University High School took their safety plan one step further on Friday.

In response to a hypothetical tornado that damaged part of the school, hundreds of students were evacuated from U High and relocated to nearby Redbird Arena at Illinois State University to be reunited with their families.

This drill is for what would happen after any kind of incident where we have to evacuate the school, like a hazmat, a tornado, an active shooter, a fire or a building collapse,” said Eric Hodges, ISU emergency manager.

Hodges said in the case of a real emergency, officials don’t want parents trying to reunite with their children at the school and Redbird Arena provides a large site with enough resources to accommodate multiple schools.

The reunification exercise was created in partnership between ISU and its lab schools, McLean County Unit 5 and the town of Normal.

The exercise has been in the works for three years and future drills will be planned, said Hodges.

“We went out looking for models for this situation and we couldn’t find one. Not many organizations are doing reunification plans for K-12 schools, so we decided to tackle this,” he said.

The drill was not scheduled in response to recent school shootings, but Hodges said the number of people signing up to participate increased "significantly” after the February shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

“As an educator now, that is the worst thing that could possibly happen to your school,” said Andrea Markert, U High principal. “I feel really confident knowing we practiced this and students, parents and teachers know what to do. Hopefully this builds their confidence. It makes me feel really good that we have this ready for them.”

During the exercise, 600 students walked from U High to the arena where they filed into the stadium seats under direction from volunteers. More than 150 parents also participated in the drill by signing in alphabetically and showing identification to claim their child.

As their parents signed in, the names of students flashed on a screen in the arena and students could connect with their parents in a designated area before signing out and leaving the facility.

Though the event only lasted a few hours, Hodges said a real reunification situation could last more than six hours.

Several volunteers surveyed the exercise, taking notes to improve future drills. Families were also asked to complete surveys about their experience.

“It was a fast process and everyone was behaving really nicely,” said Lindsey Shouse, U High freshman. “If something like this ever does happen, the parents and students are prepared.”

Her mom, Angie Shouse of Bloomington, took time off work to participate in the drill with her daughter.

“(In a real emergency) I would be much more nervous. This is a scary situation that really could happen,” said Angie Shouse.

Mike Livingston of Bloomington also joined the drill to pick up his son Tyler, a U High sophomore.

“It’s reassuring,” said Mike Livingston. “Certainly I hope there never is a case where this would become real, but it’s certainly beneficial to at least run through it and know the flow. It’s very helpful and went well.”

Follow Julia Evelsizer on Twitter: @pg_evelsizer

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Public Safety Reporter

Public safety reporter for The Pantagraph.

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