More than 5,000 Puyallup School District students walked out of classes Tuesday morning beneath blue skies and warm sunshine.
Teachers, police officers, principals — even the district superintendent — just watched. And cheered them on.
The kids were taking part in a massive lahar drill.
It was the first time all district schools located in the Puyallup River Valley had practiced together to prepare for the threat of mud and debris flows that might some day move through the valley from an erupting Mount Rainier.
Kids understood why they walked. One Meeker Elementary School girl said lahars happen “when Mount Rainier or Mount St. Helens blows up.”
“We have to run so we don’t get melted,” she added.
Students didn’t actually run Tuesday, but instead walked at a fairly fast clip up from the valley floor toward high ground. Each school had a designated gathering place where teachers were instructed to take roll call. In a real emergency, that practice would let them know if students were missing.
Students moved to higher elevations, but, since this was only a drill, they didn’t go as far as they might in the event of an actual lahar.
Kids from Puyallup High School in downtown Puyallup made their way up Fairview Drive, past the fairgrounds and up a hill as far as 17th Avenue. Members of the student newspaper, The Viking Vanguard, and the school yearbook were on hand to document the event.
The drill wasn’t a surprise, so information went out to students and staff in advance that they should come prepared for a mid-morning hike. Women who might have reported to work in high heels and skirts wore sweatpants and sneakers instead.
Staff members patrolled evacuation routes in motorized carts, ready to help if students couldn’t complete the walk. Hundreds of parent volunteers helped guide students.
Puyallup High students walked with their fourth-period classes, with leaders carrying signs bearing teacher names. Senior Brendan Illies volunteered to carry the sign for his class.
Senior Liz Griffith said it was nice to get some exercise. But one classmate added that “lazy people like me don’t like this.”
Students of all ages said it was nice to get a break during the school day. Meeker fifth-grader Jaden Ketner said the drill was fun.
“I get to talk to my friends and get exercise,” he said.
Meeker’s older students buddied with kindergarteners and held their hands as they walked.
“All our kids are here — safe and accounted for,” said Meeker teacher Carre Potis,once they reached their assembly point.
Meeker Principal Andrea Drake thanked students for respecting property and taking care of their buddies.
“Great job, guys,” Puyallup High Principal Eric Fredericks said, as his students descended a hill on their way back to school.
When the lahar drill began at 9:30 a.m., nearly 1,700 Puyallup High students were able to clear the building in about four minutes, Fredericks said. The first group of high school students reached the designated high ground in 19 minutes.
Altogether, Tuesday’s drill involved 10 school campuses, two special student programs and school employees from three office buildings. Some schools or portions of schools had practiced before, said Barb Pope, district director of student services. But this was the first time that all the schools had a chance to practice together.
She said she went to a debriefing afterward with the Puyallup Police Department.
“There were smiles all around,” she said, adding that the police praised the way kids followed designated routes and staff members kept up their enthusiasm.
Pope reported only one minor casualty — an elementary school boy who twisted his ankle. But after resting for a bit, she said, “he jumped up and said, ‘I can do it.’”