School Climate & Safety

Protecting Students With Disabilities in an Emergency: 5 Key Strategies

By Libby Stanford — July 21, 2022 5 min read
Image of an evacuation plan.
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The school shooting that killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, reignited debates over school safety best practices. But those conversations rarely focus on students with disabilities, who aren’t always able to participate in a typical lockdown or “run, hide, fight” response.

The responsibility of protecting those students often falls on special educators, who are tasked with developing highly specific plans that meet the needs of each student. That work involves extensive time spent in individualized education program, or IEP, meetings evaluating how a student’s disability might hinder their ability to stay safe in an emergency.

Despite the high-stakes nature of this work, there aren’t many resources available to districts, and federal law doesn’t outright require schools to create specific plans for students with disabilities in a school shooting.

But that doesn’t mean educators aren’t working to prioritize the safety of all students. Here are five best practices special educators and emergency management officials recommend.

1. Plan ahead

The best way to respond to an emergency is to be prepared for it ahead of time. To do that, school districts should work with disability specialists, who can inform them on the best ways to meet student needs in an emergency, according to a fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Education’s Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center.

“Disability specialists make ideal candidates for a core planning team, not only because they are experts in disability issues, policies, and legislation but also because they are experts in supporting their school’s [students with disabilities] and the services with which they are provided,” says the fact sheet, which provides information on incorporating students with disabilities into school safety plans.

If you ask Erin Maguire, who oversees the emergency planning for students with disabilities in the Essex Waterford School District in Essex Junction, Vt., preparation can mean the difference between life and death for students.

“The idea is to do the planning beforehand so that the steps during the emergency are really simple and easy so that people are not having to remember some kind of big complex plan,” Maguire said.

2. Identify individualized needs

There are more than 8 million students with disabilities who fall under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, according to the Education Department. Not all of those students have disabilities that will hinder their ability to respond in an emergency, but for those who do, it’s important that schools are prepared to serve their individual needs in a crisis.

Danielle Kovach, a 3rd grade special education teacher at Tulsa Trail Elementary School in Hopatcong, N.J., and Maguire do so by incorporating individual student safety procedures into IEPs. The IEP plans provide educators with the opportunity to note whether a student needs accommodation.

For students with developmental disabilities, like autism, ADHD, or Tourette syndrome, accommodations often involve sensory toys like fidget spinners and stress balls that help students remain calm and quiet for long periods of time. They might also mean providing students with ear plugs or sound-proofing headphones if they are frightened or overwhelmed by sirens and loud noises.

Other students may have mobility issues that require a reconfiguration of the classroom so they can quickly evacuate. Teachers can identify structures and partitions in classrooms that allow students in wheelchairs to hide without having to get under a desk.

“A situation can occur at any time,” Kovach said. “So part of what I do at the beginning of every year is try and prepare myself as much as possible to get to know my students.”

3. Create a roster of information

The Education Department’s fact sheet recommends that schools create a confidential roster of students’ needs so that teachers can swiftly provide accommodations during an emergency.

The roster should identify the students who have disabilities and include information on “their teachers, classrooms, and daily schedules, as well as their potential needs during an emergency,” the fact sheet says.

Kovach does this in her own classroom, which has an emergency clipboard to keep herself, substitutes, and other teachers informed about student needs.

“It’s [about] being proactive in getting the entire school or team involved when there are students that have significant challenges when we have situations occur,” Kovach said.

4. Be prepared with an emergency to-go bag

Along with the student roster, a bag filled with needed items, like sensory toys, soundproofing headphones, and medicines, can ease some of the burden placed on teachers in emergencies.

Both Kovach and Maguire use emergency go-bags as strategies to respond to emergency situations. Those bags are especially important for students with medical needs, who might not have access to a nurse or their medicines during an emergency, Maguire said.

The bags “make sure that if we do have to do an evacuation and we’re not able to get to a nurse that those medicines or life-saving medications are available to students,” Maguire said.

It’s also important to ensure that any activity materials or toys included in the bags can be used in the dark and quietly. Kovach said she’s packed books that she can whisper-read to students and stress balls that allow them to quietly focus on something other than the emergency happening around them.

5. Be mindful about how to practice for emergencies

While it’s necessary and important to make sure students are prepared for an emergency, frequent practice for school shootings can be traumatic for all students.

To avoid adding to the trauma, Kovach has found ways to discuss safety without touching on the violence of a shooting. She has told her students that they’re not supposed to hear fireworks at school. If they do hear what sounds like fireworks, it’s important to do the safety drills, she said.

“You have to try and give them, without too much detail that would scare them, something they can relate to,” she said.

While all students can feel the impact of shooter drills and experience trauma as a result of them, some students with disabilities may be more prone to severe reactions to stressful situations, Maguire said. Incorporating safety plans into classroom lessons is a way to ensure students know the plan but aren’t being thrown into a traumatic and stressful environment unnecessarily.

The trauma of practicing for these events also affects teachers, and it’s important for both teachers and administrators to be aware of it, Maguire said.

“We need to be careful about the frequency of practice,” Maguire said. “We need to be careful about our language and how we talk about it. At the same time, we clearly need to be as safe as possible, and we need to be prepared.”

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