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Parent Criticizes Chaperones for Hannibal Senior Trip after Some Students are Not Evacuated During Tornado Watch

Chaperones on a Hannibal senior class trip to an Ohio amusement park say they were drawing up plans for dealing with a future emergency even as they were riding out a tornado watch in the basement of a resort hotel that didn’t appear to have much of a plan of its own.

But the parent of one student says she wants a written apology from the chaperones for leaving her son and several other students in their rooms during the tornado watch, when nearly the entire hotel had been evacuated to the hotel’s basement.

The tornado missed Cedar Point, the amusement park near Sandusky where the 62 students and 6 chaperones were staying.  It tore through a town near Toledo, killing 7 people.  Toledo is about half an hour due west of the park.  It experienced high winds but no tornado.  Some of the students who were not evacuated slept through the event.

Parent Karen Vincent told Hannibal’s Board of Education Wednesday night that students were told before they went to bed that there was a tornado watch.  Chaperone Arlene Laut later confirmed that the students had been warned about a possible tornado and were advised that they could be woken up in the middle of the night to evacuate their rooms.

Vincent said that most of the rooms that had Hannibal students in them were evacuated.  She said her son answered the knock at the door from a chaperone telling him to evacuate to the basement, but “he turned around and went back to bed.”

She said the chaperone should not have accepted that response and should have demanded that the students leave their rooms.

“I don’t know how I could go to the basement knowing I didn’t have all the kids,” she said.

Several rooms were not evacuated, she said.

Vincent left as soon as she was done speaking to the board and did not hear the response of the chaperones, who described a situation that was chaotic and complex.

Laut said that the hotel did not ring alarm bells.  Rather, it sent hotel staff and fire marshals throughout the hotel — which Vincent said was a 7,000 room resort complex — to bang on every door.  She said the hotel had four or five people knocking on doors on their floor, which she said was long and had dozens of rooms.

“Mrs. Vincent is correct,” Laut said.  “We should have gone in” to the student’s room.

But she said, “We were told by the security guard that the floor was clear.”

Laut said that chaperones were under pressure from the staff to leave the floor.  On other floors, she said fire marshals were threatening to arrest anyone who did not leave immediately, including chaperones.

She said the hotel basement was small and crowded with several thousand guests, making it impossible to take attendance quickly.  Once they realized that not all of the students were in the basement.  “We were upset,” she said.

While in the basement, she said the chaperones began to analyze what had gone wrong and created a contingency plan for the future.  She said that the school should insist on getting spare room keys for each room and chaperones should build a master list of student cell phone numbers, though she said many students turn off or ignore their cell phones overnight.

Most of all, she said the school should “make sure that (the hotel) understands our plan supersedes their plan.”

The next day, at a visit to a local zoo, she said she made sure to ask a zoo official what their emergency plan was.

“It was a horrible experience,” Laut said.

“It is a hard lesson learned,” said Board of Education President Dale Young.