It’s a sad fact that school shootings have become quite common. 2018 is already on track to be a deadlier year than 2017. Last year 25 students or teachers were killed in school shootings. So far, in 2018, there has been a 63% increase in deaths from school shootings. As a result, most schools now have school-wide emergency plans in place that include preparations for acts of violence. However, these plans may not have adequately considered the very different needs that students with disabilities have in emergency situations.
As a parent, it’s hard not to worry about sending your child off to school each day without wondering if they will return home safely. It’s common to feel powerless. For these reasons, it is important for parents of students with disabilities to be actively involved in the emergency planning process. You are not powerless. There is something you can do now. You can begin by using the IEP as a vehicle for developing an emergency plan for your own child.
Few parents know, and often schools do not remember to consider that the IEP process can be used to create a safety plan for a student during crisis situations. The IEP process is a tool that often gets overlooked when it comes to emergency planning. It’s imperative to remember that while all students are potentially at risk, students with disabilities are often the most vulnerable during emergency situations.
Obviously, students using wheelchairs, walkers, canes, or who have difficulty with independent ambulation will likely need assistance exiting the building or getting to a safe zone to shelter in place. It’s not so obvious for kids who don’t have physical limitations but have non-visible disabilities. These students may not respond the way that typical students do. Many of them will need additional and sometimes significant support during emergency situations. If your child fits one of these descriptions, then you can use the IEP process to help make your child’s school a safer place for them to be.
Emergency Preparedness With Special Needs
Using the IEP process to improve student safety works because The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that two of the purposes of the act are “to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs” and to “prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.“
Schools who take any kind of federal funding are required to consider all of a student’s needs that result from his or her disability. This includes a student’s need for additional support during unsafe situations such as that of sudden weather or environmental emergency, a fire, or an active shooter if that need is due to an inability to independently protect themselves.
To identify and address all the needs that result from a student’s disability, one of the required steps of the IEP process is gathering individualized information about that student’s historical and current performance. Parents will find this information documented in the IEP under the Present Levels of Performance and the Progress Monitoring/Data Collection sections of the IEP (these section names may vary from state to state).
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Information about your child’s previous, current, and anticipated responses in unsafe situations can be included in these sections of the IEP. Additional information about your child’s specific response behaviors, communication needs, assistive technology, limited proficiency in English, etc. can all be addressed in the Special Factors section of the IEP. All this information can then collectively be used to begin brainstorming process in the strategic emergency planning for your child.
Create A School Emergency Plan
Developing a good emergency plan requires that you ask some probing questions. Here are some questions you can ask during the Case Conference Committee meeting. These should help to get the conversation started:
- Is my child physically capable of getting to a safety zone or exiting the building without adult assistance?
- Is there a written plan? Where is the plan kept? Are all adults and students aware of it?
- Are there alternate ways to exit from higher floors if elevator access is compromised?
- Who, specifically by name, is responsible for getting my child to safety in an emergent situation?
- Who, specifically by name, is the backup person if the primary person is unavailable?
- Does my child understand the need for shelter in place or an emergency evacuation?
- Does my child need training and practice?
- Does the staff responsible for my child need training and practice? Will they practice with my child? When, where, and how will this practice take place? Who, specifically, will be involved? Who, specifically, will be providing the training?
- Should there be separate plans for a lockdown, an evacuation, a fire, a tornado? Who, specifically, will be responsible for teaching my child about the different types of emergency situations and how to respond appropriately?
- Has all the staff who encounter students in any way been trained to respond to all types of emergency situations?
- When, where, and how often will the teaching and training take place?
- Will my child need access to medications or medical supplies (g., inhalers, Diastat, insulin, tube feeds, g-tube replacements), personal care, food, headphones, or calming items to keep him or her safe and quiet? If my child uses an assistive technology device to communicate, how/will that be transported with my child or what alternate method of communication will my child temporarily use?
- Will a “to-go” bag be made up for my child? What will be included? Where will it be kept? Who, specifically, will bring it to my child? Is a separate bag needed for the school bus? Is a copy of my child’s emergency plan included in the kit?
- If my child requires medical equipment (g., suction machine, pulse oximeter), how will that be transported? Will there be back up equipment in the safe zone?
- Does there need to be a separate plan for each location such as the classroom, in communal areas (g., cafeteria or playground), or on the bus?
- Will there be an accessible bus available for an emergency evacuation? Does there need to be an assistant on the bus to help my child? Who, specifically will that person be? Is there a back-up?
- How will I be notified of an emergent situation?
- Where can I go to locate my child in case of an emergency evacuation?
- If I am unable to get to my child immediately, how will I be kept updated on my child’s status and status of the emergency?
- What are some talking points I can use to talk with my child and some ways to practice at home?
- Are all the local emergency responders aware of my child’s needs? How will they know if my child has special health care needs? Should emergency responders be involved in the planning process for my child? Will my child recognize emergency responders? Does my child need to be taught how to communicate with emergency personnel?
- Is the local hospital or trauma center aware of my child’s specific needs?
- What information or paperwork might I need to collect from my child’s treating medical professionals?
- Does my child know what to do if the teacher’s or supporting adult is seriously injured or dies?
- Will all emergency plans be in place, staff trained, etc. on the first day that students arrive in the building?
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Asking the Right Questions
Never be afraid to ask even the most basic of questions about safety planning for your child. Do not assume that the school has thought of everything your child might need. Familiarize yourself with all parts of the school building, grounds, and bus routes your child takes on the way to and from school. Imagine different scenarios in various locations, alternate routes, and consider things like distances between classroom and exit doors, environmental obstacles, clutter or furniture/equipment placement in the classroom, and other issues that may have a direct impact on your child’s safe shelter or evacuation. Do a walk-through brainstorming session with your child’s school staff and community providers/partners.
Once your child’s emergency plan has been developed and agreed upon, the plan should be located within or attached to the IEP as an addendum. The plan should be clearly cross-referenced and located in various places where it can be swiftly and easily accessed. Don’t forget that IEPs are fluid documents. They can be changed at any time. This includes the emergency plan, so don’t worry if you forget something or something doesn’t work out quite the way you’d anticipated the first time around.
Everyone wants to keep our children safe. But, there are many factors to consider. While it’s not possible to imagine every possible scenario in advance of an emergency, it is possible to use historical knowledge gained from past events to guide us in our future planning. Parents are important and necessary partners for emergency decision-making and planning. By working as a team and using the IEP process to proactively mitigate many of the foreseeable dangers of an emergency for one student, parents, schools, and community partners generalize the odds of safe outcomes to all students with or without disabilities.
Archive, Gun Violence. “In 2017, the United States Had 44 Elementary/secondary School Shootings Where Someone Was Shot or Killed.-Killed: 25-Injured: 60 So Far in 2018: 28 Incidents.-Killed: 40-Injured: 66.” Twitter. Twitter, 25 May 2018. Web. 28 May 2018.
Clarke, L., Embury, D., Jones, R. and Yssel, N. (2014). Supporting Students With Disabilities During School Crises: A Teacher’s Guide. TEACHING Exceptional Children, p.001440291453461.
IDEA Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. US Department of Education, n.d. Web. 28 May 2018. <https://sites.ed.gov/idea/about-idea/>.
This article was featured in Issue 79 – Managing Everyday Life