Next Level Crisis Planning for Students with Disabilities

When doing access or functional needs crisis planning, let go of labels or diagnoses and concentrate on practical abilities or disabilities that pertain to emergency response.
Published: December 18, 2023

This article is part 3 in a series on crisis management for schools serving individuals with Access or Functional Needs (AFN)­­, or other disabilities. To read part 2 on conducting site assessments for students with disabilities, click here. To read part 1 on creating emergency plans for students with disabilities, click here.

Access or functional needs (AFN) crisis planning enhances general “level one” crisis planning (the basics) with more focused, “level two” crisis planning, which is geared toward serving individuals with AFN, based on broadly similar disabilities or challenges, such as mobility-impairments, visual impairments, noise sensitivity or behavioral disorders. Each of those clusters faces challenges that are distinct from the other groupings. For example, people who shriek when excited require different accommodations than those needed by people who are hearing impaired. Level two planning addresses these general, categorical challenges with suggested helpful accommodations.

In terms of crisis planning, one perspective that may be helpful is to let go of labels or diagnoses for a moment, and just concentrate on practical abilities or disabilities that pertain to emergency responses. For example:

Can this person hear, see and understand announcements or instructions? If the answer is no, clarify the underlying cause and possible mitigation measures, which will vary considerably from one person to another. They may need hearing aids, braille messages, pictographs or specialized electronic devices.

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Do they speak and understand English, including words related to emergencies, like lockdown or evacuate? People may have varied levels of comprehension, which can be diminished under stress. Shy family members may smile and nod while not fully grasping your message. Be prepared to speak slowly, with short messages, or use translation devices.

Can they follow directions, maintain silence, sit still or remain calm in a crisis? Once again, stress can undermine individual coping abilities. Most important remedies here involve considerable practice, along with the introduction of any coping tools such as fidget toys or lollipops.

Can they control impulsive behavior, including bolting? For some students, controlling the impulse to lash out, scream or run off when agitated is difficult.  For staff, supervision can be extremely challenging. For young elopers it may make sense to use harnesses (with parental written consent), especially during evacuations. But if harnesses are not an option, and walking is too risky altogether, one alternative would be to arrange for transportation by vehicle.

Can they tolerate loud alarms or flashing lights? For anyone with sensory disabilities (or even a really bad hangover) alarm bells or flashing lights can be counterproductive, or even paralyzing. Remedies can include ear and eye protection, advance warnings, or re-engineered sirens or alarm devices that would then take 20 seconds or so to ramp up to full capacity.

Can they cope with crowded halls or rooms? Crowding can trigger disruptive behaviors, such as shrieking or lashing out. If the crisis plan is to jam everyone in a closet, be realistic about whether this will work for all of your students. One option is to divide the class into more than one lockdown spot; some students might cluster in a hidden corner while others lockdown in a nearby storage closet. Crowded hallways have their own challenges; in those cases, look for alternative exit options, or adjust the timing to thin the crowd.

Can they use their arms, hands, legs or torsos? Physical disabilities come in many shapes and sizes. Some individuals may rely on wheelchairs while others do not; many may be able to walk independently, but not quickly, or nimbly, or without canes or walkers. Clarify what kind of support they will need.

Can they crouch against walls, or under desks, or in comforting nooks? Can they cover their heads? These suggestions look reasonable on paper, but they may be unreasonable for people with limited mobility or flexibility. Customize options to accommodate their needs.

Can individuals who use wheelchairs roll themselves without assistance, or do they require aides? If their powered chairs malfunction, is there always someone nearby who knows how to repair the chairs, or how to override power controls to manually steer them? If they need aides, does each student have one assigned to them full time, or is the aide helping multiple students, bouncing from classroom to classroom? Is training for aides provided and documented, or is the school just hoping they know what they are doing? Does the training cover the individuals’ particular needs as well as the school’s level two crisis plan protocols? Can the aides unlock padlocked gates? Can they lock down safe havens?

Can students be safely lifted, or are they medically fragile? Occasionally, well intentioned staff or visitors have tried to assist students without being fully aware of their vulnerabilities. As a result, they cause injuries that could have easily been avoided. For example, one medically fragile student was injured jumping out of the back door of a school bus during a drill—an injury that could have easily been avoided if the driver had been adequately trained and had been familiar with the child’s Personal Emergency Plan (PEP). In some cases, two helpers are required in order to safely lift a student. It may be safer to move them to an evac-chair or other specialized equipment, but without a PEP to refer to a well-intentioned helper might try something else—at risk of injury and liability.

Can they be disconnected from medical equipment? Students may be incapable of breathing without their ventilators or taking care of other extraordinary medical challenges without specialized equipment. It’s essential to map out the options ahead of time, empowering aides to act quickly and making it easier for new helpers to find directives. Waiting to sort out those details until a major crisis is in progress is not a good plan.

Do they recognize police, fire or medics as helpers? Have they ever met any? Setting up social and educational visits in advance, with first responders in full gear, can reduce anxiety in the students while simultaneously educating first responders about students’ needs. Without such meetings there is a risk of students running and hiding at the first sign of someone in a hazmat suit.

Do they have a means of communicating their needs or calling for help? The more severe the disability, the greater the likelihood that the individual is extremely vulnerable to abuse or neglect. They also may be witnesses with valuable information. What back-up plans are in place that empower them to call for help? Are they entirely dependent on just one aide? If that aide becomes indisposed, or even abusive, what communication options are available? The more allies that can be attuned to the individuals’ communication needs, and encouraged to check on them regularly, the better.

Can they realistically be expected to run, hide or fight? In many cases, none of these are realistic options. Even with mainstream students, fighting can be an option that is absurdly out of reach. For students with severe disabilities it’s certainly unrealistic. They may not be going anywhere without an aide, if their mobility is severely compromised. If aides are on top of their responsibilities they may be able to roll or otherwise assist a student in order to escape or hide, but they’ll need someplace to get to quickly—ideally in 8 seconds or less. And for that, practice is critical—the third leg of our AFN crisis planning, which we’ll address shortly.

Level three planning expands on this even further, recognizing every student as a unique individual with personal quirks, strengths and needs. This individually customized training can be built around Personal Emergency Plans (PEP)[i]. PEPs are similar to Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and can in fact be tacked onto IEPs for efficiency’s sake, but PEPs focus entirely on crisis management, differentiated for one student at a time.

Whether free-standing or integrated into an IEP, the same essential components for PEPs apply. Helpers must be able to quickly access such information as:

  1. Family contact information, including emails, phones and/or any specialized communication channels, at home and at work.
  2. Support people in their lives, including aides, friends, relatives, buddies and favorite staff. You can’t have too many back-up support people! When you find yourself at school with a student who nobody picked up it’s enormously helpful to have a long list of alternative supporters to draw upon.
  3. Medical helpers, and contact information, such as nurses, doctors, counselors and occupational therapists.
  4. Mobility and medical equipment, sources and details. This can include particular devices, where they were purchased, how to arrange repairs and how they operate. It should also include medication information, including where it is stored (usually in the nurse’s office refrigerator), how it is administered, who is authorized to administer it and where to obtain refills.
  5. A realistic assessment of available resources.
  • While making this assessment and developing a plan, be realistic about the student’s family’s circumstances—if they’re broke and living in a tent it’s not realistic to expect them to travel extensively, plug in equipment, buy expensive devices, or pre-pay for something that they can get reimbursed for down the road. Asking them to do so could be setting them up for unnecessary humiliation. But with that in mind, determine what resources are actually accessible in your school, community or state.
  • Avoid assigning homework to families. Well intentioned helpers often make suggestions (“Have you tried asking churches for help?” “Have you considered posting a go-fund me request?” “Have you tried that agency downtown?”) without fully grasping what an imposition such an assignment would be for an overloaded family with limited resources, no gas money, no computer and survival English. A single parent working a full-time minimum wage job doesn’t have a free hour during the week to make phone calls, let alone transport a disabled child across town for an interview.
  • If you have no better alternative than to refer them to agencies, at least be sure your information is still accurate—that the agency is open, doesn’t require an appointment, and is still providing the assistance you are recommending. Five minutes of staff time on the phone can save families from two hours of fruitless travel and waiting in line. It’s terribly demoralizing for desperate families to follow your instructions only to find the office is closed, the funds are all gone or that for any other reason they cannot be helped.
  1. Specific strengths, challenges and accommodations. This is where planning moves from Level two to level three—what precisely is going on with this student, and what can help mitigate their challenges? Sometimes disabilities are singular and straight-forward, but, in many cases, they are complex and confounding. Under such circumstances, coming up with workable solutions will require a team effort, drawing on insights from family members, friends, teachers and specialists of all stripes—quite similar to the process when developing an Individual Education Plan (IEP).

Disabilities can look very similar on paper, but in real life they can be far more complicated and nuanced. Students may take different medications or be more responsive to certain phrases or gestures. They might be more responsive to authority figures, or in other cases be more receptive to maternal, friendly approaches. Some can be hand carried, others are too fragile and should not be moved from their chairs without special training. Some love hugs, others hate to be touched. Some children come when called while others only respond when you announce it’s time for dessert. Some children run when they hear alarms, while others collapse, and a few have seizures. As if these issues weren’t daunting enough in and of themselves, many students struggle with multiple challenges at once.

The bottom line is: (1) planning is critical; (2) level two planning is critical for the AFN population as a whole, and (3) level three planning is critical for each and every student with access or functional needs.

Tod Schneider, M.S., is CEO of Safe School Design LLC, and an adjunct analyst with Safe Havens International (SHI). He has served hundreds of schools over the past two decades from Oregon to Florida. His current focus is on site design, crisis management and planning for schools serving people with Access or Functional Needs (AFN) or any other significant disabilities. He has presented, consulted and written for the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, the U.S. Department of Education, the California Department of Education, and many other agencies. Mr. Schneider is senior author of Safe School Design, (ERIC Clearinghouse 2000), one of the first books to focus exclusively on the application of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design for schools. ( )

[i] Some of the best work I’ve seen on this calls it an Individual Emergency and Lockdown Plan (IELP). I prefer PEP as a more streamlined acronym, but beyond that highly recommend, “Supporting Students With Disabilities During School Crises A Teacher’s Guide,” by Laura S. Clarke, Dusty Columbia Embury, Ruth E. Jones, and Nina Yssel.  Council for Exceptional Children. 2015.


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Strategy & Planning Series