Students today are taught to "run, hide, fight" during a school shooting — but what if you can't do any of those? Many parents fear that school lockdown plans are forgetting about kids with disabilities.
Seth Chessman can’t move his legs below his knees. The 10-year-old navigates life pretty well with a wheelchair, or sometimes a skateboard he uses to get around school. But his mom, Contessa Chessman, worries he would struggle to escape during a fire or an active shooter situation.
“If there is an emergency situation, he can’t get up and run out,” Contessa Chessman, 46, of Anaheim Hills, California, told TODAY. “It paralyzes me to think about it to be honest.”
When she talked with the school about Seth’s individualized education program (IEP), she asked about evacuation plans. In an emergency, a teacher would pick Seth up and lug him out. Other students are responsible for helping him find a teacher to carry him.
It doesn't seem like enough, she said. “In a panicked situation it is going to be every child taking care of themselves.”
Children with disabilities often left out of emergency plans
Chessman is not alone worrying about what will happen to her child during an emergency. Nationally, schools are struggling to come up with evacuation plans for children with disabilities. The recommended advice for all students in active shooter situations is “run, hide, fight,” which is impossible for many children with disabilities.
“We don’t think much about the … inaccessible structures,” Valerie Novack, a Portlight Funded Fellow at the Center for American Progress who studies gaps in emergency preparedness for the elderly and people with disabilities, told TODAY. “We need to be accounting for (children with disabilities) in ways that do not include just the learning experience.”
As active shooter situations and emergencies become more commonplace, the number of parents desperate to protect their children is growing, Novack said. In some cases, parents have asked their school districts again and again for evacuation plans for their children with disabilities. When these pleas are ignored, some have sued their school districts.
“We do know that increasingly there have been lawsuits and complaints in this area,” Novack explained. “So far these lawsuits have been successful in a broader response.”
Melinda Wedde understands the frustration all too well. Her son, Shepherd, has autism, ADHD and generalized anxiety disorder. He dislikes being squeezed into small spaces where he has to touch others and gets nervous if he’s separated from his friends. Wedde worries that in an active shooter situation he will panic while hiding.
“I am scared of what will happen should something serious happen because when he gets anxious and nervous and afraid he is not going to follow directions,” the 34-year-old mom from Pittsburgh told TODAY. “Those sort of things keep me up at night.”
She’s tried talking to the principal about additions to Shepherd’s IEP, which would allow him to have a comfort item and noise canceling headphones during an emergency. She believes that would help him hide without drawing attention to himself. But the school keeps telling her “they can’t do it now,” she said.
“The people who are running these drills they need to have constant conversation with parents,” she said. “I’m not sure that they realize there are kids with disabilities in general education classes.”
Lisa Kinsey feels lucky she did not have to fight this battle at school for her daughter Sarah, who has multiple disabilities. The district made sure that children with disabilities had plenty of accommodations for lockdowns and emergencies. When Sarah was starting school she was scheduled to be in a room on the second floor. Soon, the district realized that would make it tough to evacuate, so they moved Sarah and other students with disabilities to a room on the first floor and close to an exit.
“My school district is doing it right,” Kinsey, 34, of West Chester, Pennsylvania, told TODAY. “Students with special needs are treated no less than other students.”
Kinsey feels tremendously relieved when she thinks about Sarah, who has several disabilities including ataxia, a mitochondrial dysfunction and ADHD, among others. While she follows directions, she sometimes becomes overwhelmed by anxiety. What’s more, the ataxia causes low muscle tone, which means something like running can be challenging.
“She falls a lot,” Kinsey said. “Stairs are very hard for her.”
What parents can do to help their children.
Parents worried about their disabled children in emergencies can talk to their school about independent emergency and lockdown plans (IELPs), which piggyback on IEPs. They can discuss how the school plans to help their children in emergencies.
“IELPs are really helpful,” Novack said. “Parents have a tremendous amount of power to demand this.”
While IELPs help a specific student, it is important for school districts to include a safety plan that helps all students with disabilities. Including disabled students in emergency planning is an important, but overlooked, aspect of mainstreaming students into general education.
“We are getting to a point unfortunately where we are no longer as able to say, ‘This is not likely to happen here’ or ‘We will get to it when we get to it.’ The frequently of these occurrences have created an urgency,” Novack said.