Keeping Kids with Autism Safe When Violence Erupts
Every school must prepare for the unthinkable: violence in the building. That violence can come from two specific sources: an “internal” source, like a student in the school, or an “external” source, like an intruder that gets into the building with the intent to hurt or kill people.
Our administrators, teachers, support staff, and students must know what to do if violence erupts in their school. To prepare everyone, we run drills, make plans, and practice locking down, sheltering in place, and evacuating. The purpose of this planning and practice is to ensure that our response to danger is quick, efficient and appropriate to keep us safe.
As the Director of School Security for a large district in central New Jersey, I am always looking for ways to improve the practices and protocols we use to keep everyone safe. This past November 2016, I was honored to be a guest speaker at the New Jersey Education Association’s Convention in Atlantic City, NJ; my topic was running security drills that actually prepare our students and staff to survive a violent incident.
During the program, a woman asked a question about the most appropriate way to deal with kids on the autism spectrum during lock downs and drills. Her point was that she believed that kids with autism should not be subjected to the stress of a drill and these drills would adversely affect them.
My first thought was that she was not correct. During a real event, everyone has to be prepared to respond so they can survive. I gave her comments some thought, and then told her that the reality of a violent incident is that kids on the spectrum can be killed just like any other child. In fact, some of the children killed at the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut in 2012 were special needs kids.
Her comments created a great discussion among the people in the room and got me thinking about what more I could do to prepare this population of kids and their teachers to be as safe as they could be.
To that end, I reached out to experts in the area of special needs education: Katherine Neff, MSW, LCSW, CST, School Social Worker/ Janine Clark, Teacher of the Handicapped.
The areas I was concerned with were broken down to several specific areas covering the kids and their teachers. These included: providing information to the kids, preparing the kids to respond to an emergency, what the teachers can do with the kids during a lock down drill or real event, and what training can benefit the special needs community and their teachers to enhance everyone’s security in an age when danger can come to a school on any given day.
The three experts I consulted for this article are dedicated professionals who genuinely care about the special needs population in our schools. I want to thank all of them for helping me understand more fully the concerns that need to be incorporated into the way we run drills and how we can make sure that we include these kids in all of our plans.
Once I understood the expert’s responses, I began to “connect the dots,” so to speak, to come up with the answers we all need when developing our security plans.
Before I begin to describe what I think we need to incorporate into our plans, I want to acknowledge very clearly that I did come across some people who honestly believe that including kids on the spectrum in the drills and safety plans was not appropriate. When I tried to understand why they felt this way, it really boiled down to their belief that, like the teacher at the convention, the kids just really cannot handle this type of activity. After my research and trust in these experts, combined with my own experience, I must disagree. Children with autism must be included to the greatest level possible when it comes to preparing to survive a violent situation. The caveat would be if there is a particular student who cannot handle the stress of the information or the drills, then each school must address those concerns specifically. In general, everyone who can be a victim of violence must be trained and prepare.
With that in mind, here are some important questions and answers regarding keeping kids with autism safe:
1. What should we tell the kids about safety and security in the school?
When it comes to what we should tell our kids on the spectrum, we should keep it simple and use role-play before a drill to prepare them for what will take place during a drill or real event. What you say to kids varies with the age of the student—something along the lines of: “It is the job of the adults in the school to make sure everyone is safe. We do drills and other activities to practice safety.”
2. When should we tell the kids about safety and security concerns and drills?
Some students will likely feel anxious and need additional explanation and reassurance one-to-one, but in general, most kids on the spectrum should be told the same thing as other students. Specific classes and students should have additional information as determined by teacher/other adults who know them well. Consult with the parents or guardians to get input, as they know their child best.
3. Should we tell the kids about the nature of the potential threats?
Because each child has a different cognitive level and unique personality, the teacher should decide what, if anything, should be explained regarding threats. This should be done in consultation with the child’s parents or guardians as well.
4. How can we prepare the kids for participating in a drill before we run a drill?
Tell them what to expect as clearly as possible—loud noises, sitting in place, etc. The more they know what to expect, the better they will be prepared to handle it. If an individual child has difficulty, the teacher should take the appropriate actions to ensure the child is not traumatized by the drill. Again, individual children should be accommodated as needed.
5. What should we do with/for the kids when the call comes to lockdown or shelter in place?
For the most part (and there may be exceptions to this) they should be treated like everyone else— we drill so kids are safe in a real emergency, so all kids need to be prepared. The teacher or aide should tell the students what is going on and remind them what they should do to be safe. The staff should take care to assist the children throughout the process and monitor their emotional responses.
6. What do you do during a lock down drill with the kids?
The teacher/aides/other adults should plan ahead to have activities that will keep the students quietly occupied. These may include games, books, and iPads with headphones. In some classrooms, teachers have “lockdown bins” that contain the items they need to help the kids participate and lessen any anxiety as they wait for the end of the drill or other action in a real event.
7. If the drill was a real event and the kids were locked down for over an hour what concerns do you have and what would you do with the kids during that time?
Preparation is the key here. Having the items the kids will use to stay focused and calm during a prolonged event at the ready is vital in preparation plans. Sensory items such as putty, lotions, and brushes should be included.
8. Would there be any problems with a full-scale drill involving the police? (Would the kids be scared, etc?)
If possible, giving the students a preview of what to expect would help. Maybe the police could speak to the students ahead of time so the kids could see the uniforms and other things that they might be exposed to during a drill. Contacting your local police and encouraging regular school visits that include the special needs classrooms is a great idea. Letting the police know why this is important can help the officers remember to include the special needs classrooms during their visits and understand how to respond to the kids.
9. Is there any specific training you think would benefit the special needs population in reference to security activities?
Role-playing in a controlled environment so the kids get used to all of the sights and sounds of a drill or an event in advance of the real thing is a great idea. Hands-on training is always a great way to start the process of involvement for the kids and staff. The more we go over the processes and procedures, the more comfortable the kids will become, and the less it will be an area of stress for them.
These nine questions and their answers provide us with some things we should be considering when preparing our kids—all of them— to survive a violent episode in their school. We live in a world where this possibility is a reality for every school, and we cannot allow fear to keep us from confronting this reality and taking proactive action to protect our kids.
In any classroom where a child’s parents or guardians strongly object to their child participating in drills for whatever reason, I believe we should take the time to discuss the parent’s concerns and to impress on them the need for every child to be prepared as best as possible.
If that doesn’t work, or a parent is convinced their child cannot handle a drill, you might want to consider have an “opt out” policy if possible and practical. In an “opt out” policy, a parent or guardian can request that their child be excused from school on the day of a pre-planned drill.
This “opt out” option is used in many schools when they are planning a major drill/training event usually involving the police and other first responders. The value of a drill is that it has to be as realistic as possible to have the greatest impact. Some people believe that announcing a drill is the best option, so everyone, teachers included, would know that the drill was not a real event and there was no real danger, thereby avoiding anxiety and fear. I disagree here as well. A drill should prepare us to respond immediately. Surprise drills help to inoculate us from the fear of an incident erupting unexpectedly so we can respond appropriately even under stressful conditions.
Another reality of announcing your drills in advance; when a person knows they are responding to a drill and not a real event they can be distracted or delay responding to finish whatever task they were working on. There would be no sense of urgency and no value to the drill.
We train to react quickly, think clearly and respond appropriately. This is accomplished by a process I describe as Talk, Walk, and Run.
We talk about how we should respond, we prepare mentally and physically and walk through the process, then we react to the emergency call (real or drill) by moving full speed following our plans. This is the run part. Together we enhance our ability to survive violence. Making sure everyone is ready, including our kids on the spectrum, is not an option. It is our responsibility.
Let me know what you think: [email protected]
Director Pangaro is a retired police lieutenant who served his community for 27 years before bringing his skills and experience to the school system. He is the owner and CEO of Pangaro Training and Management, providing programs to police, schools and the business communities on topics of safety and security. Director Pangaro writes a regular column for NJ Blue Now, a law enforcement magazine, a weekly newspaper column Behind the Badge for the Coaster newspaper in Asbury Park NJ as well as for other school related magazines. Visit his website at: JPangaro.com for more bio information.
This article was featured in Issue 62 – Motherhood: An Enduring Love