AAHS graduation faces complications

Altoona Area High School officials acknowledged it wasn’t ideal, but because of the threat of thunderstorms, the 2019 graduation ceremony was moved from Mansion Park’s abundant seating to the Fieldhouse, which meant limited capacity.

The city was to experience thunder and lightening about 6 p.m. Monday, according to weather forecasts. But it didn’t happen.

So the people packed into the Fieldhouse for the graduation ceremony, so many that school officials closed the doors and directed people to an overflow room in the high school auditorium where the ceremony was livestreamed.

Theoretically, everyone with a ticket should have gotten in to the Fieldhouse.

There were 508 graduates, each with four tickets, for family to attend. That’s 2,032 people.

“The Fieldhouse is rated hold 2,280 people,” Superintendent Charles Prijatelj said. “They are 18-inch wide seats. But when you are putting real people in a chair, sometimes it doesn’t work that way. It should have worked, but at the same time, you are putting a lot of people in the gym.”

He couldn’t definitively say how many people with tickets had to watch from the overflow room in the high school auditorium.

“I believe we sent about 100 people to the auditorium. I could be wrong,” he said.

“When we had to make the cut off, it was a call made by myself and the head of security, Bill Pfeffer. The gym was packed. We might have been able to sandwich more people in, but we were at capacity.”

When asked, Prijatelj could not say if there were counterfeit tickets.

One man, Randy Wertz, estimated that 200 people were unable to get in. He said he saw one woman sobbing.

While Prijatelj was involved in deciding when to close the doors, he was the biggest proponent of maintaining the event at Mansion Park, District Community Relations Director Paula Foreman said.

She said a team of administrators made the call early in the day to change the venue from Mansion Park to the Fieldhouse.

“The call was made because when you looked at the weather, forecasts for 5 and 6 o’clock showed thunderstorms. Mansion Park has metal bleachers. We wanted to have it outside but the problem is if there is lightning, everyone has to evacuate and go to their cars and wait for 30 minutes, (rules followed by PIAA events),” she said.

“Moving forward, we will probably sit down and evaluate what we do as far as our alternative venue. We have to ask, ‘is this our best alternative as a backup?’ I’m sure it will be discussed,” she said.

Foreman said people were upset that they weren’t able to get inside.

“We make every effort to get families in there,” she said. “We don’t want to see anyone miss their children’s graduation.”

It’s happened before.

The district’s official Facebook page collected more than 100 comments prior to the ceremony, when it was announced that the event was moved inside.

Abby Smith posted: “Have fun! They didn’t let anyone in my family in and they had tickets. 2016.”

Pam Mitchell lamented the fact that they did not host the event at a larger venue — the Jaffa Shrine Center: “They can find 88M to spend on a new school but can’t contract with the Jaffa for graduation ceremonies?”

Others were not upset.

Holly Terek wrote: “If they had it at Mansion, you’d be complaining they were holding it in the rain.”