SAU dangerous graduation

The storm clouds flickered with lightning ahead of us as we approached Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia for graduation last week. The threatened rain forced the single commencement ceremony on the football field to become two consecutive ceremonies in the gym.
Tornado sirens began screaming as we walked towards the gym. “Looks like we need to be heading for shelter,” my son said thinking back six years ago when he crouched under a picnic table as the edge of the Arkadelphia tornado dumped its vacuumed up debris around him.
At the gym a crowd of well-wishers surged out of the gym to safety of the hall and patio.
“It’s too crazy for me,” a man we knew said as we stepped up. He chatted a bit then headed home.
Peering into the gym, past the jam-packed crowd sheltering from the storm in the foyer, I noticed even more people waiting out the storm in the stands. There simply was not enough time, exits or space for everyone who had come to graduation to get out.
“I looked around and told my crew, we are waiting right here,” a friend whose daughter graduated said afterwards.
The storm system passed. The mass of people slowly sifted back into the gymnasium and settled into new places on the bleachers. The processional music sounded as colorfully robed professors entered followed by the graduates in black. The crowd noise diminished as families and friends strained to see their graduate.
We listened to an abbreviated graduation speech by Dr. Linda Beene, director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. One sentence seemed especially significant, “Southern Arkansas University may need more help,” followed with a promise to do what she could to help the university receive the requisite funding for over due improvements around the campus.
Graduates filed forward and accepted to diplomas to friendly cheers. Tassels turned and the organist began the recessional. The staff left, the graduates followed – until the organist stopped playing, packed up his music and walked away. With his departure, the crowd in the bleachers descended, headed for the exits and stalled the line of still exiting graduates. Without the cue of music to wait, the next crowd of family and friends moved forward to enter the gym as the first crowd of visitors gathered up their cameras to leave. Everyone aimed towards the side-by-side set of double doors.
We looked around for a less congested way to leave.
There was none.
Like everyone else who tried to find a back door, we ended up joining the press.
Fortunately, the tornado scare had calmed with the rituals of graduation. Although packed together shoulder-to-shoulder and belly-to-back, the crowd retained its mellow mood. Nothing triggered a panicky need to get out.
This wasn’t the first graduation in the SAU gym, but the lack of crowd control made it look like it. A little foresight would have designated “In” and “Out” times, doors and courtesy guidelines such as continuing to play the music until the last graduate had left the building to go to a designated and announced reception area. The guests could have been asked to wait to enter until the bulk of the first crowd had exited.
In general though, a couple additional exits big enough to handle such crowds, located at the corners of the gym would have increased safety and traffic flow. Some of the help SAU is supposed to receive includes funds for the athletic department. The first project there should be the installation double wide exit doors at the back corners of the gym.