7 Ways to Support Students with Disabilities During School Safety Drills
These seven strategies can serve as a starting point in structuring your school’s emergency protocols to address the diverse needs of students with disabilities.
Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.
In the event of an emergency, which statistically is unlikely to happen during the school day, teachers, staff, and the student body — including students with disabilities — must be ready to respond.
During the 2022-23 school year, more than 90% of public schools said they had written procedures to follow for several different emergency scenarios, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. However, primarily due to a lack of staff and limited time during the school day, schools practice their emergency drills infrequently, which may not address the needs of their entire student population.
For example, only 30% of public schools reported practicing school evacuations nine or more times during the school year. At the same time, students with special needs made up more than 15% of the public school population in 2021, according to NCES. Because students with special needs have unique health concerns and challenges, lack of emergency drill practice can leave students and leadership ill-equipped to manage a crisis.
To ensure their entire student body can successfully navigate a crisis, school leaders must identify and address the needs of students with disabilities, considering each individual’s unique challenges and needs. Here are some key strategies your school can use to keep students with disabilities safe during emergencies.
1. Identify which students might need extra assistance during a drill
Students with disabilities have individualized education programs (IEPs) or 504 plans that already outline the accommodations and support services they need during the school day. These can serve as a guideline during safety drills, but it’s still essential to specifically document what support those students will need during a crisis.
When we think about helping students during emergency preparedness drills, we typically plan how to support individuals with physical disabilities. Often, we fail to recognize students with “invisible” disabilities, such as anxiety disorders, which require their own plans. During IEP meetings, it’s important to dig deeper and ask parents whether their student has additional sensory issues in particular situations; for example, you might have to consider what that student needs if they stand outside in the cold for an hour.
Administrators should keep a list of students who will require special assistance during a drill, and they should know where those students are located throughout the day. For example, you’ll need to execute a different evacuation plan for a student using a wheelchair when they’re on the third floor of your building. Students with visual impairments need to get out of the building fast and early so they’re not tripping over other people. Students with hearing impairments may not have their interpreter with them at all times, so you’ll need to make sure you have clear signage and orange vests for all of your teachers. Students with lower cognitive ability might need to practice drills more frequently and walk through exercises in a less overwhelming way.
2. Develop individualized emergency plans
While particular student groups might share similar challenges, one size won’t fit all during an evacuation or student-relocation scenario. At IEP meetings, discuss with parents and teachers any support their student might need to complete a drill — and document it in detail. It’s necessary to get into the more granular details during these discussions. For example, during a fire alarm, will a student need noise-canceling headphones that should follow them from classroom to classroom? You want to ensure every student is safe, but you also want to limit the trauma they experience to the greatest extent possible.
3. Underscore the importance of student participation with parents and guardians.
Some parents and guardians might argue that their child should not take part in an emergency drill for safety or psychological reasons. It’s important to remind them that if they opt their child out of every exercise, they won’t be prepared should a real emergency occur. Often, it requires asking parents why they don’t want their child to participate and reassuring them that your goal is to keep their child safe and minimize the stress they experience. Once again, this highlights the importance of forming a collaborative relationship with the parents and guardians of our students.
4. Understand what your students will need post-evacuation
After students leave their classrooms or your school, some may still face unique challenges once they reach your safe location. Students who rely on feeding tubes will need access to their nutrition and accessories. Other students will require EpiPens, insulin, or other medications. During drills, school leaders should practice how long it takes to get from the student’s classroom to the nurse’s office, where these items are stored.
School leaders should work with the school nurse to confirm that they have documentation that describes the medical needs of each of these students. At the same time, all students confined to a location should have access to non-perishable snacks, water, and even sensory tools, such as fidget spinners.
5. Have a plan in place for students who pose a flight risk
It’s not enough to safely relocate students; you must also plan for children at risk of running away. Students with autism or other developmental disorders may find loud noises or an unfamiliar environment particularly distressing and want to escape. Working with teachers to identify those students with a history of running and putting proactive supports in place before a drill can help prevent this. Should students flee or refuse to vacate during an exercise, you’ll want to ensure teachers have practiced de-escalation techniques to successfully calm and redirect them.
6. Communicate your reunification plan
Moving all your students and staff to a location with the tools they need to be safe and secure is step one. In a true emergency, you’d need a way to communicate to parents and guardians when and where they should pick up their children. You should have accurate contact information for all of your families, including their emergency contacts, in a digital format in case you cannot contact them from the school office.
Sharing your reunification plan with parents and guardians when you practice your drills can also help alleviate fear. Parents and guardians entrust the school district to take care of their children and are uneasy about how their children might fare in a serious emergency. Don’t be afraid to talk to them and explain that, for instance, you’ll be conducting an evacuation drill that requires their child to be pushed through a field in a wheelchair and that someone on your staff will be pushing them.
7. Practice emergency drills and identify any holes in your plan
The only way to understand whether your plan considers every student’s needs is to practice it often and include all students. It will help your school make necessary adjustments to its crisis plan and become a regular part of the school day for your students. By practicing emergency drills according to students’ individualized safety plans, you can provide a consistent and predictable framework that reduces anxiety and increases the likelihood of successful emergency drill participation for all students.
By incorporating these strategies and consistently practicing drills tailored to students with diverse needs, schools can foster an environment that not only prepares their campuses for emergencies but also promotes inclusivity, ultimately contributing to the overall resilience and security of the entire student body. Addressing the unique challenges faced by students with disabilities during crisis situations reflects a proactive approach toward creating a safer and more supportive educational environment for all.
Jaime Sowers is the clinical advisory team director at Blazerworks, which partners with schools to support school psychology, occupational and speech therapy, and special education departments. Before joining BlazerWorks, Jaime spent three years as the special education director for Santa Fe Public Schools in New Mexico.
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