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Tornado creates scary moments at local schools



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December 01, 2010 | 08:39 AM
Fontana — "The lights did flicker a few times and those were silent moments," Walworth Elementary Principal Pamela Larson said last Wednesday, two days after a tornado touched down only a few miles from the school.

On Monday, Nov. 22, a tornado touched down on Lakeville Road in rural Walworth. At the school, students, teachers, parents and even bus drivers waited patiently in secure locations within the building hoping the storm would pass.

After the storm ended, four homes in rural Linn and Walworth townships were damaged, but the tornado didn't affect the school. During the storm, administrators took precautions to keep kids and adults safe.

At Fontana Elementary School, also a few miles away from where the tornado landed, students and adults in the building were brought to the cafeteria, which is located in the basement. Although the final bell had already rung at Big Foot High School, students who remained in the building for sports or other extracurricular activities also moved to designated safety areas in the building.

Notifying parents

Fontana District Administrator Mark Wenzel said he wanted parents to know that their children were safe during the storm.

So, he contacted the Honeywell Instant Alert system, which sent a message to parents notifying them that their children were brought into the school's cafeteria and wouldn't be leaving on buses.

The Instant Alert System sends voice messages, texts and e-mails from the school instantly to parents or guardians. After Wenzel left the message with Honeywell, it reached parents quickly.

"After I left the message, I walked probably about 30 feet and all of the parents' cell phones began ringing," Wenzel said.

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Prior to sending out the message, Wenzel said the school's phone was constantly ringing with parents looking for information, but after the message was sent it stopped.

Big Foot High School Principal Mike Hinske said he didn't send out a message because school had already ended for the day.

Larson said the school didn't use its instant alert system because of a lack of time.

It takes about five minutes to send a message, Larson said. During the storm, her first priority was ensuring kids were safe.

Wenzel said there was an additional benefit to notifying parents about the storm. The next day a parent contacted him and said the alert let them know the storm was serious and gave them time to take shelter.

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During the storm

The schools in Walworth and Fontana all are linked to weather alert systems, which let the staff know that there was a tornado warning.

Larson said when the warning was heard, the younger kids were outside playing and they were immediately brought inside.

Bus drivers who pulled up to the school and parents waiting in the parking lot also were asked to come inside to wait out the storm.

"At around 3:23 to 3:25, we had everyone assume the position," Larson said. The position — sitting down with your head tucked between your knees — is standard for tornados.

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At 3:45 p.m., the school received the all clear and students were sent to their classrooms or homerooms so teachers could take attendance. By 4:10 p.m., all students were released from school.

At Big Foot High School, kids that participate in sports or other extracurricular activities were still in the building. About 150 peope were directed to secure locations.

Both Larson and Hinske said law enforcement kept them abreast of the storm's status and the schools and police kept in constant contact.

Hinske said information about the storm was relayed to people in the building, including that the storm had touched down.

Larson said students didn't know that tornados had touched down within a few miles from the school, but that the situation was serious.

Despite that, the atmosphere in the building was relaxed.

"There were a few tears, but overall it was very calm," Larson said.

Hinske said people from the community even came to the school looking for a safe place for shelter.

At Fontana, during the first 10 minutes, students were in the cafeteria, Wenzel said the kids sat down and remained silent. Instead of attempting to maintain that atmosphere with more than 300 elementary and middle school students, Wenzel said he then allowed the kids to speak quietly to each other.

"You need the kids to take it seriously, but you don't want to get them to a point where you scare them," Wenzel said.

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