School Safety Drills for Students with Special Needs

Published: December 20, 2021

Screaming, crying, uncontrollable physical outbursts, frustration, or complete inaction and unresponsiveness: all potential behavioral reactions to emergency drills for students with special needs. Many current state laws require schools to conduct regular safety drills, which can include fire drills, lockdown/active shooter drills, earthquake drills and tornado drills. Such drills are critical parts of ensuring emergency preparedness for students and teachers at school. Most schools have crisis plans to address student safety, however, very few plan to include tools for students with disabilities.

Many school safety drills include significant stimulus for participants: loud noises or alarms, chaotic visual stimuli, and changes in everyday schedules or routines. These disruptions can create sensory overload, anxiety and fear for students with special needs. In some instances, students may be required to move quickly, assume protective positions and hide while remaining silent. These can be problematic requests for students with disabilities.

The complex requirements posed to students during emergency drills can prove to be challenging for students needing additional assistance, from functional needs to learning disabilities. With few resources available to students and scarce guidance for principals, parents and teachers are left with little option for these emergency situations other than to remove the student from the drills altogether, which puts this vulnerable population at greater risk.

It is because of these reasons that some educators and parents believe that safety drills are not appropriate for their students. In certain instances, parents are allowed to opt out of safety drills due to the stress and behavioral disruption they cause. Within some school districts, this exemption may even be written into a student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which is contrary to the safety provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

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Opt-Out Shouldn’t Be an Option in School Safety Drills

The justifications for opting out range from protecting students from trauma associated with emergency drills to relieving parental stress in the home from students returning home with behavioral outbursts. Regardless of the ability, NO safety drill should be designed to traumatize any participant of the drill, teacher or student. However, for students on the autism spectrum, sensory overload associated with safety drills can cause significant anxiety and may lead to problematic behavior or uncontrolled outbursts during and even after the drill.

Thus, there is the concern of involving students with special needs in an emergency drill that may inflict unnecessary trauma, while also decreasing the effectiveness of the drill for the rest of the school. While this may be true, students with disabilities will be affected by the emergency situation just the same as everyone else on campus. As such, it is essential they are involved in the planning and practice for any emergency, just like the rest of the student population. In real-life emergencies, people behave in unpredictable ways regardless of any physical or cognitive impairment, thus the reason for practicing drills in the first place.

Develop Individualized Safety Plans for Students with Special Needs

Rather than excluding students with disabilities from school safety drills, school administrators, parents, first responders, teachers and aides should develop individualized safety plans that address the unique needs of each student. When creating these individualized plans, the team must take into consideration the diverse needs among students with disabilities.

Examples range from issues stemming from anxiety from large crowds during an evacuation, cognitive ability to process instructions, functional needs while exiting a second story building, or overstimulation from the fire alarm during a fire drill. Any of these factors can cause students with disabilities to lose focus and render them unable to perform the required action or response. Thus, putting others and themselves at greater risk.

The first step in creating an individualized safety plan starts with special education teachers. They are an integral part of the development and revision of crisis plans. After considering the needs of the school as a whole, special education teachers or experts should focus on individual students’ learning needs and how they can teach students to be safe during any school emergency.

These 6 Strategies Will Help in Developing Plans

The following are examples of strategies to engage the special needs student population on any campus:

  1. Seek input from the student. In the case of functional needs, the student may be able to provide advice on how best to assist them during an emergency (wheelchairs, paralysis, vision or hearing impaired, etc.).
  2. Seek input from the parents or aides. In the case of students with learning disabilities or on the autism spectrum, there are often best strategies on keeping the student calm and working through sudden changes in environment. Resources such as headphones, relaxation apps, storytelling and kinesthetic learning may all be options.
  3. Create specialized kits for each special needs student based upon the above input. This will ensure the student has the resources they need to follow directions and stay safe.
  4. Regardless of ability, drills should be in context and relatable to students. Age-appropriate conversations by the teachers before any drill will frame the context to what they are doing and why.
  5. Visual aids, hand signs or flags can assist students with hearing impairment to recognize and respond to the emergency.
  6. Conduct drills with special education classrooms separate from other emergency drills at first, then later combine with the general school population. Allow for extended time, practicing with specialized equipment and engage aides/parents in the process.

An individualized safety plan will allow special education teachers to note specific modifications and specific concerns on how a student will respond to directions in a given new and/or frightening situation. Any accommodations made should be noted in the school-site safety plan.

Individualized Safety Plans Are Effective

In a real-life incident dating from 2018, a southern California elementary school was placed on lockdown during lunch due to a gang-related shooting adjacent to the campus. Students witnessed the violence and were forced to react quickly. During this incident, a special needs second grade student, who was on the autism spectrum, was able to evacuate the playground into a classroom, find an appropriate hiding place inside and remain silent for 45 minutes until local police gave school administration permission to resume normal instruction.

During the debrief of the incident with the school principal and teachers, the question was raised about how this particular student was able to respond. Based on the school proactively engaging in safety curriculum that included storytelling and trauma-informed practices before the event, the student told her teacher she was able to relate her situation to a character in the story they read who also went through a similar emergency situation at school.

Ensure Equity and Access to All Students

Regardless of the strategies employed, school administrators and teachers must be able to assert there is equity and access to all students in their safety plans. In addition to the preparation of emergency drills, the process of reunifying students with their parent or guardian must also be taken into account. This, too, should be planned and practiced during the school year.

While there are seemingly endless challenges that face students and teachers today, the thought and practice of excluding students with disabilities for emergency drills should be one that is overcame by thoughtful inclusion of experts and stakeholders. No student, regardless of ability, should be allowed to be less-safe or less-prepared than any other student on campus.

Stefan Bjes is sergeant with the Addison Police Department in Illinois, and Adam Coughran is president of Safe Kids Inc.

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