School Climate & Safety

In a School Emergency, Special Educators Feel the ‘Weight of the World’

Added preparation is crucial in protecting students with disabilities
By Libby Stanford — July 20, 2022 8 min read
Image of a student in a wheelchair in a hallway.
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Danielle Kovach will never forget the day a transformer blew near Tulsa Trail Elementary School, where she works as a 3rd-grade special education teacher in Hopatcong, N.J. When she heard the loud popping noise outside her classroom, she feared the worst: gunshots.

She wasn’t the only person to have that thought.

“I’ll never forget one of my students looked at me and he said, ‘We’re getting shot at! We’re getting shot at!’ and the look in his eyes, the terror in his eyes,” said Kovach, who is also the president of the Council for Exceptional Children, the association that represents special educators nationally. “I couldn’t tell him that we weren’t, because I didn’t know.”

Fortunately, Kovach planned ahead for such an event. As a special education teacher, responding to the emergency wasn’t as simple as leading students outside. She grabbed a go-bag that she assembled at the start of the year with noise-canceling headphones, fidget toys, stress balls, and books for students who might have difficulty remaining still and quiet for a long time. At one point, she handed her glitter phone case to a student who needed something tactile to remain calm while they evacuated the classroom.

“Sometimes there’s those situations that we encounter that you never know what’s happening,” Kovach said. "[It’s about] working on being proactive and doing a lot of that practicing and preparing.”

Preparing for the worst with an individualized approach

As society grapples with safety measures in the aftermath of school shootings like the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, special educators like Kovach play a unique role. They are tasked with advocating for students who may struggle to sit still for hours at a time or may not be able to run, hide, or fight in an emergency. Their work, in turn, equips all teachers—not just special educators—with the tools to be prepared to protect students who may have disabilities.

Special educators stress that emergency preparedness comes down to individualized planning. They often spend extensive time developing plans for students with disabilities, talking through safety strategies with parents in childrens’ IEP, or individualized education program, meetings, and training students on how to respond when any kind of emergency occurs.

Those exact plans usually depend on the type of disability a student has, said Erin Maguire, a special education director at the Essex Westford School District in Essex Junction, Vt. For students with developmental disorders, such as autism, ADHD, or Tourette Syndrome, tools like sensory toys and noise-canceling headphones are key. Those items can help students remain calm and quiet in the event of an emergency.

“It really depends on the need of the student,” Maguire said. “For example, with students with intensive sensory challenges with any kind of auditory issue, we do have students who carry soundproofing headphones. So if there is an alarm they can both muffle the sound and also perform and not have such an interference from their disability.”

Students with physical disabilities require other strategies to be safe. For example, students who use wheelchairs may need a specialized hiding spot in a classroom behind a wall or another structure because they don’t have the ability to hide under a desk or a table.

“When you think about running, there are students who cannot run,” Maguire said. “When you think about hiding … there are students who really do not have the ability to necessarily quietly hide without having vocalizations or the ability to physically stay in one place.”

Advance planning and knowledge of students’ needs are crucial

It’s nearly impossible to think of each student’s individual needs in a moment of crisis, so teachers who have students with disabilities in their classroom need to plan ahead, Kovach and Maguire said.

In Kovach’s school, each classroom has a clipboard that’s easy to access in case of emergencies. The clipboard contains information on each student collected at the beginning of the school year and is updated as new information arises. It tells Kovach if a student needs a sensory toy, has a specific trigger that may hinder the emergency response process, or needs medicine that might not be readily available during an emergency. The clipboard is also there for other teachers or substitutes in case Kovach is out of the classroom.

In one instance, the sounds and lights that came from a fire alarm during a fire drill triggered a flight response from one of Kovach’s students. After the incident, she noted it on the clipboard and informed all of her colleagues and school administrators so they would be prepared in the future.

The administrators at her school also put notes down to give Kovach a heads up before a fire drill would occur so she could be prepared. Both Kovach and Maguire also run extensive practice drills with their students so they know how to respond in emergencies and can be proactive in getting the specific help they need.

“Most often than not our students with disabilities need that structure, they need that routine, they need ‘here’s what’s coming next,’ that transition time,” Kovach said. “We can’t always give them that when we have an emergency, so we will do practices on our own in our classroom before a drill occurs schoolwide.”

How policy could make a difference

The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—the two main federal law covering the more-than 8 million elementary and secondary students with disabilities—both indicate the need for individualized emergency plans for students, according to a fact sheet published by the U.S. Department of Education’s Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center.

While federal law protects students from discriminatory practices that would prevent them from being safe, it doesn’t say much about how schools should go about protecting students with disabilities in an emergency like a school shooting. Resources like the department’s guide, which includes a list of best practices to consider as schools develop their own detailed emergency plans, can help. But some special educators would like to see more done to ensure all districts are prioritizing the safety of students with disabilities.

“We could have some more consistency,” Maguire said. “I don’t think it should be optional to do some of the things I’m talking about.”

California state Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Democrat representing northern Los Angeles County, was hoping to change that in his state. This past year, Portantino introduced a bill that would have required schools to include a description of necessary accommodations to the school safety plan in students’ IEPs. The bill would have also required education agencies to create an “inclusive school emergency plan” with the safety procedures identified in students’ IEPs.

Portantino, who has advocated for gun control measures to prevent shootings, said the legislation seemed like a logical step after talking with constituents who worried about the safety of their children with disabilities.

“The disability community, the autism community, the moms and the dads and the kids come see me every year and it’s an overarching plea, ‘Just be sensitive and inclusive as we develop public policies,’” Portantino said. “The plea is, ‘Don’t forget us.’”

The bill was ultimately denied a hearing during the 2021 legislative session, but laws like it could ensure that all school districts are considering the needs of students with disabilities when developing safety plans, Portantino said. The state senator said he plans to reintroduce the bill during California’s next legislative session.

If lawmakers were to consider requiring safety plans in IEPs, it would be important to ensure that requirement wouldn’t overburden special educators, Maguire said. For example, Portantino’s bill would have only required schools to develop safety plans for students who need the accommodation.

“I worry a little bit about requiring every student on an IEP to have an individualized plan,” Maguire said. “That level of individualization is unnecessary for many students. We already have a lot of requirements in special education, we don’t want to be adding more requirements.”

Districts already have the ability to include safety practices in student IEPs, but that is not regulated by law. At a minimum, districts should be asking if students need specific accommodations for safety when they’re developing the plans, Maguire said.

Weighty, split-second decisions

Even with preparation and some tools available to them, special educators, like all teachers, are left with the responsibility of making split-second decisions that could mean life or death outcomes for students. That responsibility weighs heavy on teachers who work in special education, but it doesn’t deter them from doing their jobs.

While many teachers would prefer for their jobs to be limited to instruction, that’s not the reality of the world they’re in, Kovach said. She sees school shootings, and the safety procedures that come with them, as another example of teachers’ responsibility to respond to circumstances around them.

“Teachers have the weight of the world on their shoulders because that entire world is in their classroom,” Kovach said. “That’s all part of education. That’s all part of teaching. What happens in the world is what we need our students to know and be aware of.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Recent tragedies like the Uvalde shooting have left special educators more anxious and scared at work, Maguire said. Those fears are compounded by the emotionally taxing responsibility of consistently advocating for students with disabilities to be included in the conversation around safety.

“It’s really hard to have to constantly remind everyone of the importance of the inclusion of disability and access in the context of this work,” Maguire said. “Special educators feel that too. They are also advocates for their students and they are needing to make sure those specialized plans are in place.”

Coverage of students with diverse learning needs is supported in part by a grant from the Oak Foundation, at www.oakfnd.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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