How to Keep Students with Disabilities Safe in Lockdowns, Evacuations, and Other School Crises
With lockdowns and evacuation drills becoming a regular occurrence in schools, students with disabilities are often faced with disruptions of routine, unrealistic behavior expectations, accessibility problems, and other challenges that may not have been addressed in the IEP and remove necessary supports. Friendship Circle asked Dr. Dusty Columbia Embury and Dr. Laura Clarke, who’ve written about safety and students with disabilities, to answer some questions about how schools can include these students in their planning for unexpected events and how parents can make sure their children’s needs are accounted for.
Introduction from Dusty and Laura
We are passionate about creating and sustaining inclusive settings and experiences for all children, and we began our research about school safety and children with significant disabilities after the Newtown school shooting.
What started out as a panicked conversation between friends who both have a child with a disability turned into research about what kinds of safeguards are in place for children with disabilities in a school crisis. Our article in Teaching Exceptional Children, “Supporting Students With Disabilities During School Crises: A Teacher’s Guide,” was the result of this research, and our work in this area has continued as we work with our friends at Scenario Learning on their school safety online course for school professionals and through workshops and trainings with school districts interested in creating safety plans that address the most vulnerable students.
What are some issues with lockdown drills that parents of kids with disabilities should be aware of?
Dusty: It depends on the student—but we know that practice for emergencies like a lockdown or a natural disaster can present challenges to our students. When I think about my own student, I think about the (often loud) disruption to the routine and not knowing what is happening. Changes, especially frightening ones, present difficulties for my student and many other students. When she was younger, my concerns were that she would shut down and be unable to move to safety on her own and might lash out if others attempted to move her to safety.
When we are thinking about students with medical equipment or medications administered on a schedule, we have to plan in advance to make sure we have those. I might always have a student’s insulin or suction machine/plug in my classroom; but if the drill occurs as we are leaving the library or on the playground and students are directed to stay there for a period of time, then I have a student in potential danger because we weren’t able to keep the schedule due to a drill.
Laura: Dusty and I originally developed this concept after we listened to and watched the trauma of Sandy Hook and other school crises. As we processed these school tragedies, we both came to the realization that our own children would really struggle or not be able to handle the requirements of the situation. For example, my son Dan had never been taught the skills needed to maintain a quiet stance for a prolonged period of time. With his diagnoses of autism, epilepsy, and an intellectual disability, neither he nor his teachers had the necessary tools to help him stay safe.
As Dusty and I began to process through what our own children with disabilities would need, we also began to look at what other students would require to survive a crisis such as a lockdown, emergency weather event practice, or actual school crisis. When we think about the skills needed to handle a drill or actual crisis, children have to be able to:
• maintain silence
• follow directions very quickly
• maintain a position/location
• manage feelings of stress/frustration without acting out
• manage changes to schedule
These are just a few of the skills required—but any one of these can be extremely problematic if not impossible for our children unless they are taught the necessary skills and provided with their required accommodations (including sensory supports, medical supports, and behavioral supports).
What’s the best way for parents to address these problems?
Dusty: Start with the teacher and the IEP team. There has to be an administrator on the IEP team, and that initial discussion can happen with all of the professionals who have direct contact and influence over the child and the policy. We are certainly going to recommend having an Individual Emergency and Lockdown Plan© (IELP) in place for the student. This way, we address teaching and progress on learning the required skills for surviving a lockdown or emergency at school as an integral part of the student’s learning experience. Going over our Teacher’s Emergency Plan Procedural Checklist with the IEP team allows all of the stakeholders to be on the same page, so to speak.
Laura: The best way for parents to support these problems is to be an active part of the IEP team. In this circumstance, it truly does take a village to support our children, and we need to be prepared to involve more than just our immediate school team.
We recommend including local first responders and any medical personnel if the student has any medical needs, and behavioral support personnel if the student has any behavioral concerns. The IELP is a great tool to help teams start to develop the crucial supports needed.
What exactly is an IELP? Do all schools have them?
Dusty: The IELP is a plan that Laura and I designed after research about this topic and our own personal experiences with our children in school. Most schools and districts have a safety plan or policy on protecting students, but it’s not a universal one, and it changes from school to school, district to district, and across the country. Some states have really excellent resources for districts about safety and students with disabilities (e.g., Ohio and Florida), but not all states or districts or even individual schools do.
So we did our research, and we wrote the article “Supporting Students With Disabilities During School Crises: A Teacher’s Guide” to share both what we learned and what we created to help teachers and parents fill that gap. We put it out for special educators, administrators, parents—anyone who wants to read it—to be able to use the plan, use our checklists, use the tools, use all of it to help prepare to keep our students safe.
Laura: The IELP was developed to blend seamlessly with a student’s IEP in the same way Functional Behavioral Assessments (FBAs) and Behavior Intervention Plans (BIPs) are used to support students with significant behavioral concerns. We recommend that all schools look to develop an IELP for any student who has:
• significant health needs (requiring daily medication or medical intervention such as suction, oxygen, etc.)
• significant behavioral needs (requiring daily behavior intervention and behavior supports)
• significant communication needs (including using an alternate communication system such as PECS, sign language, or FM system to understand spoken language and/or communicate their thoughts and needs)
• significant physical supports (to transition around the school or across the classroom; for example, transitioning from a wheelchair to adapted seating)
• support needs for activities of daily living (ADLs), including dressing, feeding, and/or toileting
Is planning for drills or emergencies something that should be brought up in an IEP meeting?
Dusty: If you have a student who would need support in the event of an emergency, then you need to address this in the IEP meeting. That’s our protection for our students—if having an IELP or practicing for drills is in the IEP, then the law requires that those things happen. If they are not in the IEP, it could still happen, but it’s not required by law. So I would definitely bring it up at an IEP meeting.
Laura: Absolutely! We would recommend adding practice times as one of the student’s required Supplementary Aids and Services (SAS) in the IEP.
What can parents do if the school is making drill compliance a disciplinary or a zero-tolerance issue? Do educational and disability rights apply to these extraordinary, non-educational situations?
Dusty: If it’s a school activity and the student needs educational support to be successful in it, then we have to address it as an educational need. If this is happening, then we have to put something in place for the student to not just comply, but to acquire the skills to be safe and survive a crisis in school.
Laura: Any activity that is required by the school to help maintain a student’s safety is part of the student’s educational program. In order to ensure that special education law and supports cover a student in these situations, it is crucial that the IELP be part of the student’s IEP in the same way that an FBA and BIP can be tied to a student’s IEP.
Are there things parents can do at home to prepare their kids for these events, or to provide tools to help them get through it?
Dusty: Parents can certainly have a safety plan at home and make sure students are aware of it and practice it in ways that meet the individual student’s needs. At my house, we have a copy of our emergency routes out of the house with our designated meet-up location posted on the inside of the kitchen cabinet with drinking glasses in it. The kids see it every time they get a glass. We’ve gone over it with our kids, and when we are outside we’ll point out, “Hey, right here is where we go if there’s ever a fire in the house,” or “There’s Mr. Mark, and if there was ever an emergency when you needed another adult, you’d go right to his house and get him.”
When we change the smoke detector batteries, we tell the kids we are going to sound the alarm so they hear it and recognize it and remind them what to do if there’s a fire. It’s going to be different for different families and their needs. You might need to assign safety partners or someone to grab an emergency pack on the way out of the house.
Laura: I agree that practice at home is crucial, as is the opportunity for students to share what they have learned. Working with the school psychologist, counselor, or speech pathologist is often helpful to bridge the school-to-home gap and ensure that parents have a full understanding of the school emergency and/or IELP plan.
In our school, our speech pathologist does a great job creating a social story for students who require communication and behavior supports. The social story includes pictures of appropriate school personnel and locations and walks students through the expectations of any school crisis. Tools like this can be great supports for our students and families.
Dr. Dusty Columbia Embury is an associate professor of special education at Eastern Kentucky University and former special education teacher. Mom to two girls, she’s learned how to be a better special education teacher by participating in IEP meetings as a parent.
Dr. Laura Clarke is an associate professor of special education at Eastern Kentucky University and mom to four amazing children. Her experiences as a parent of a teen with a significant disability have shaped her teaching and research.