Creating Emergency Plans for Students with Disabilities

School crisis planning is challenging, but particularly so for individuals with disabilities. Here’s how you can start making improvements.

Creating Emergency Plans for Students with Disabilities

Photo via Adobe, by Minerva Studio

This article is part 1 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 3, click here. 

As school administrators, you might have two elephants in the middle of the room: crisis planning in general and crisis planning for campuses serving individuals with access or functional needs (AFN), or disabilities of any kind. These challenges cover a wide range of issues, from twisted ankles to traumatic brain injuries and everything in between. Chances are your overall plan needs some serious editing, which can be quite a bit of work already. But as for your AFN plans, in many schools they don’t exist.

Accommodating for individuals with AFN, in case you were wondering, is not a crisis plan.

First, let’s take a brief look at generic school crisis planning. This is built on three fundamentals: site assessment, crisis planning and practice:

  1. Site Assessment: This starts with basic concepts of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED): natural and electronic surveillance, natural and electronic access control and territoriality. Second generation CPTED amends the site assessment parameters a bit to incorporate connectivity — how well do people appear to be getting along? Are there any indications of alienation, intolerance or antisocial behavior? Safe, Healthy and Positive Environmental Design (SHAPED) broadens the picture still further, with concern for health (environmental, mental and physical) and positivity (meaning that in addition to promoting connectivity, the school demonstrates positive outcomes: successful teaching and learning, against a background of overall mutual support and positive engagement.) Postings and artwork observed throughout the school provide some clues regarding connectivity and positivity. For example, how many postings deliver negative messages (no running, no talking, etc.) and how many deliver supportive, inclusive messages (applauding student accomplishments in academics as well as in sports, and offering supportive suggestions and referrals, such as where to get help applying for work or college.  (If the environment is alienating and negative to any degree, we would suggest the introduction of positive behavior and intervention support measures — but that’s a whole other elephant!)
  2. Crisis Planning: Now that the site itself is reasonably functional, we need to determine how to handle crises, ranging from the commonplace to the horrific, including:
  • Traffic-related injuries and allergic reactions. These are the most common sources of preventable injury to students.
  • Fires and gas leaks. These are not common, but they have happened in schools on occasion over the past two centuries, sometimes with horrific results. Fortunately, the growth of aggressive preventive measures and enforced building codes over the years have reduced their frequency considerably. Nevertheless, there’s no down-side to continuing to be prepared.
  • Depending on your school, assaults or bullying could be daily occurrences, and intruders could show up every month or two.
  • Active shooters. Fortunately, these catastrophes will statistically almost never happen in most schools — but they will likely happen somewhere, so we do have to be prepared. Everyone should know when to lockdown or evacuate, and how to do so.
  1. Drills and Emergency Exercises. Plans are effectively worthless without regular practice, but in too many schools, plans become museum pieces almost immediately, gathering dust on bookshelves. Consider your likely skill level if you never got past writing down plans for dancing, driving or playing soccer. The same goes for emergency responses—practice is essential.

All of the above could take up many months, if not years, of your time. These are big projects that absorb considerable time and energy; success is worthy of well-earned congratulations. But how about our second challenge: AFN crisis planning?

Here are three major components of school safety planning for sites that serve students and staff with Access or Functional Needs:

Step 1: Ask Students to Help with Your AFN Site Assessments

Think of AFN site assessments as standard assessments on steroids. The challenges are far more complex and many of the students are far more vulnerable than are their mainstream classmates. For this reason, assessors are obliged to look a lot closer, for a lot more details, that affect a wider variety of staff and students.

Imagine trying to respond to an earthquake while profoundly disabled and unable to move on your own. What’s precariously towering over you, at risk of falling? When the other students are ducking under their desks, how are you supposed to take cover?

Try to look at the site through the eyes of students with a variety of disabilities, or at least alongside them. Walking through the site with an autistic student can yield great insights. If they have communication challenges, they might not be able to articulate their concerns, so your observations can be important. Do they avoid certain flooring due to visual patterns? Do they avoid areas or paths that are noisier or more congested? How do students they pass in the halls interact with them? Can they tell you where they have had problems with bullies?

For more insights, try other challenges on for size, such as by rolling through the site in a wheelchair. What do you have to roll through or over? How does the sitting position effect your ability to see people, obstacles, signs or destinations? Can you open doors, or is it too awkward? Has storage found its way out into the hallway, creating pedestrian traffic congestion or otherwise hampering your movement?

If that was too easy, try to find your way out with your eyes closed. How does it affect your stress level if furniture is moved slightly or book bags are dropped in your path? Bear in mind that these challenges present fairly simple, one-dimensional disabilities. Many students are challenged simultaneously by more than one, such as blindness and cognitive disabilities.

Well-prepared able-bodied assessors with good checklists can learn a lot on their own, but only students can tell you what makes sense to them and what doesn’t, where they encounter bullies, traffic conflicts, doors that are too hard to open or thresholds that are too difficult to roll over. They can also tell you what makes them feel most welcome, who they can turn to for help, and what kind of furniture is easiest to sit still in.

As for connectivity, from an AFN perspective this will involve looking for indicators of inclusive design and operations, including communication approaches that go beyond standard postings on bulletin boards.

Step 2: AFN Crisis Planning

AFN crisis planning revisits general crisis planning but takes it up a notch, with a heightened awareness and concern for specific access or functional needs, one challenge or disability at a time. For example, people who rely on wheelchairs will need different accommodations than people who are deaf or blind, and those people in turn will have much different needs than students with autism, Asperger’s, ODD, emotional disorders, psychiatric problems or medical issues.

Planning for clusters of students with similar needs is an efficient and important intermediate step, but to do this right, schools are advised to add another layer to their crisis planning by developing personal emergency plans (PEP). PEPs (these go by a few different names) can be thought of as individual education plans (IEPs) but are focused entirely on crisis management and responses rather than on academics. Just as with IEPs, PEPs are differentiated for each student.

For example, 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. Many students with AFN are far more complicated, facing multiple challenges that borrow symptoms from all kinds of labels or that defy categorization entirely. The subsequent need for individual fine tuning is why it’s necessary to have PEPs.

Especially with complicated challenges, a pragmatic approach that may be helpful is to let go of diagnoses for a moment and concentrate on practical abilities or disabilities that pertain to emergency responses. For example, regardless of diagnosis, can this person hear, see and understand announcements or instructions? Do they speak and understand English, including words related to emergencies, like “lockdown” or “evacuate?” Can they follow directions, maintain silence, sit still or remain calm in a crisis? Can they tolerate loud alarms, flashing lights or crowded halls? Can they use their arms, hands, legs or torsos? Can they walk or roll without assistance, or do they require professional aides?

If students need aides, are the aides assigned one-on-one, full-time, throughout the school day, or are aides spread thin, helping multiple students in different classrooms throughout the day? Can all students crouch against walls, under desks or in comforting nooks within the room? Can they cover their heads? Can they be easily lifted or moved, or are they medically fragile? Can they realistically be expected to run, hide or fight? Can they breathe on their own? Can they be disconnected from medical equipment? Have they ever met any first responders? Do they recognize police, fire or medics as helpers? What are their common reactions to stressful situations? Can they control impulsive behavior? Do they have a means of communicating their needs or calling for help?

Step 3: Practice, Practice, Practice

Finally, while practice is critical for everyone, (and most schools now conduct a variety of emergency drills monthly), practice is even more essential for students or staff with access or functional needs. For students whose disabilities make it hard to understand and absorb lessons, monthly practice might not be enough — in many cases, daily practice might be necessary.

For some students, anything new and different is cause for anxiety and can trigger a panicked response. In such cases it’s productive to remember that such students are comforted by the routine nature of their daily lives; anything that is done regularly is likely to be less stressful. Drills that upset them when conducted on a monthly basis can be transformed into comfortable experiences if eased into and conducted daily.

For students with cognitive or learning disabilities, drills might not be upsetting, but it still takes a lot more repetition before new information is likely to stick. For traumatized or sensory-disabled students, desensitization is key. As was the case for students with cognitive or anxiety-related disorders, repeated, daily practice, starting with the quietest, low-key version and only gradually increasing the noise, speed or intensity, can be a useful approach.

The more challenging their disabilities, the more students are obliged to rely on aides, buddies, friends or other staff, which means it’s the latter individuals, far more than the students themselves, who must know what they are doing. These helpers need to know everything from basic disability etiquette (i.e. ask first, treat wheelchairs with respect, don’t pet the dog) to personal needs (such as how to safely lift students into or out of wheelchairs, how to use Evac-chairs and anything else spelled out in the student’s PEP.)

Attend to all of the above and your school will be in a far better position to protect not only the student body in general, but the most vulnerable students among them.

Read Part 2.

Read Part 3.

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 or any other significant disabilities. For more information, visit This article was originally published in 2019, and the practices still apply today.

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