On a below-zero January day in early 2018, Katie Shelley was working on the fourth floor of a building on her college campus in Northwest Ohio when the fire alarm went off. She proceeded to work through the conflict she has faced her whole life: How to get out of the building as a wheelchair user. No plans were in place for her evacuation. Growing up in the aftermath of events like the Columbine shooting and 9/11, she was used to having to worry about whether or not she’d be safe in a school emergency.
This April marked the 20th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting. In the weeks following the anniversary, three deaths and numerous injuries were caused by two shootings on school campuses. Despite whatever fervor Columbine may have stirred 20 years ago to address school shootings, they have become a common part of the U.S. news cycle and school shooting drills a regular part of a student’s education. However, no matter how common these events are, safety drills and strategy have not adequately developed inclusive safety measures for students with disabilities.
This is not a trivial problem: 14 percent of students have a disability.
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The current approach regarding active shooter events is the “run, hide, fight” strategy, the response recommended by the Department of Homeland Security, which calls for running away when possible, hiding somewhere safe when you can’t run, and fighting the shooter if running or hiding are not options. For students with disabilities who may not be able to run, employment of the “hide” aspect of the “run, hide, fight” strategy often calls for waiting in areas such as libraries, bathrooms, and classrooms for response personnel to assist them — even if these areas aren’t very accessible or safe. The fight strategy is the last option, one that no parent or teacher wants a student, disabled or otherwise, to have to do, and a strategy that has left two young students dead in the last several weeks. However, if schools have not provided sufficient options for students to respond, they may be left with few other choices than to charge or thrown items at an attacker.
Plus, tools like door barricades and lockdown plans designed to keep children safe often ignore the needs of students with disabilities, who in addition to mobility disabilities may have adverse reactions to alarms that overwhelm senses, difficulty processing instructions, or an inability to remain still or quiet.
Using a classroom as a refuge area was the solution Katie’s school decided to use when she was in fifth grade. “I just (in theory) had to wait in a burning building until someone came to get me. Even at 10 years old, I knew this was a horrible plan and I was not a fan,” she said.
While Katie was raised in Michigan, these issues are national. A settlement in a Newark, New Jersey, high school district was reached in 2017 after it left at least one disabled student in the school when an unplanned alarm went off. The school “did not have policies for evacuating students with disabilities,” according to federal officials. More than 20 years ago, the City of Alexandria, Virginia, school board was sued twice regarding evacuation and school safety of students. Despite laws and litigation establishing accessibility requirements that go back decades, much has remained the same in evacuation plans for students with disabilities.
When it comes to students with disabilities, organizations such as Safe and Sound Schools and the ALICE Training Institute recommend the use of Independent Emergency and Lockdown Plans, or IELPs. These protocols hook into Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs), a federal requirement for special education students, which are detailed and routinely updated plans to accommodate students with disabilities; or a student’s 504 Plan, which ensures access to certain accommodations, such as extra time on tests.
While IELPs can be a great way to address a child’s specific needs, learn the problem areas of the school, and connect with disabled students and their parents, it is a dangerous disservice to everyone on a school campus to relegate inclusive solutions to these problems to just one student and their specific IEP or 504 team. It does not seem feasible that a school administration could efficiently respond to the individual IELPs of each student and keep all students safe in the event of a real emergency.
Relying on individual plans also represents a missed opportunity for universal design and inclusion, which could benefit the campus as a whole. Universal design of safety plans would produce plans that are created with the flexibility and intention of being used by the largest number of students possible, based on a recognition of varied needs, rather than amended later for individual students as needed. Additionally, IEPs and 504 Plans are a federal requirement that does not apply equally to private schools, which do not have a requirement to provide IEPs to students with disabilities.
In 2019, schools should be beyond a “separate but equal” approach to students with disabilities. Disabled students spend on average more than 60 percent of their time in a general classroom. It is dangerous and lazy not to integrate identified safety needs into school response plans, which should be accessible and account for the many needs of all children attending the school. For instance, investments in tools like noise canceling headphones, or cue cards for the classroom, may help students handle loud noises and follow the steps in a lockdown procedure.
The requirement for inclusion in the classroom and in emergency preparedness is not just fanciful suggestion, but the law. The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, applies to places open to the public, governments, and schools. A recent ADA-based lawsuit against the New Rochelle, New York, school district, which failed to evacuate two students during a fire and did not include students using mobility aids in drills, ended in a payment of $26 million dollars to a student who uses a wheelchair.
With the innovation that has taken place in the last several decades, people like Katie often wonder why there haven’t been improvements to school emergency plans and why students continue to face dangers due to inaccessibility nearly 30 years after the ADA and hundreds of school shootings later. While school safety has turned into a billion dollar industry, efforts such as metal detectors or adding police are not creating safer school campuses. Funds could be used for more comprehensive alarm systems, evacuation chairs, additional training and drills, and emergency elevator systems that will allow all students to be less passive in an emergency situation.
Inclusion is planning for everyone from the beginning. The onus for creating an effective response to an active shooter should not reside with the student, teachers, or parents, but with school systems using the knowledge and input of those parties. IELPs are a conversation we need to be having for K-12 students with disabilities, but they are only a beginning step for making our schools truly accessible and as safe as possible for anyone that may be on campus in an emergency. School districts have spent far too long avoiding true integration in school emergency plans, and it puts students’ lives at risk.