School emergencies pose extra danger to students with disabilities

Rising school shootings and lockdowns beget new focus on current drills


AP Photo/George Walker IV

Entrance to The Covenant School in Nashville, TN, the site of a deadly shooting in March where six people were killed. With school shootings on the rise, proper lockdown methods, especially for students with disabilities, take on more importance

With years of annual safety presentations, and interspersed lockdown drills, the phrase “run, hide, fight” is anchored in the minds of students. And with the recent school shootings and neighboring lockdown events, students tend to hear “run, hide, fight” more and more.

But things get tricky when that’s the only thing they hear. What about the students who can’t run, hide, or fight?

The reality for students who need access, however, is the opposite. They clearly hear the generalized plans applicable to the majority, and rarely get individualized solutions from their advisers. The only solution for them is self-advocacy.

The constant reiteration of “run, hide, fight” overlooks students with disabilities who can’t navigate a high-pressure lockdown situation as easily. More often than not, these students are the first ones who feel left behind.

“From the viewpoints I’ve read online, there are a lot of disabled teenagers who report, feel, and know that in the case of a shooting or a fire, they are the last ones out,” said senior Serena Vandergrift, an ambulatory wheelchair user diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS).

Vandergrift stresses that people with disabilities consistently feel like they are fighting with their own bodies on the daily. Adding a potential school shooting or lockdown event means having to fight multiple times over and over to keep alive, making it all the more exhausting.

The lack of awareness of this persistent fight is what changes the experiences of several students with disabilities during the lockdown drills to become incredibly dangerous. Senior Emily York was diagnosed with congenital hearing loss at birth, hearing roughly 50-75% of the spectrum of sound the average person typically hears (60-80% with hearing aids).

Her experiences with lockdown drills severely depended on the class she was in.

“This year, my lockdown drill was completely smooth sailing. I was just in my Spanish classroom, and I just sat in the corner like I have 13 other times,” she said.

York was able to read the social cues of her class, and there was an adult in the room to guide the students to a designated area. This was not the case in a lockdown drill she experienced in the fall of 2021 when she was in her gym class’s locker rooms.

“We didn’t know what time the drill was going to be, so I felt incredibly anxious. I didn’t know if we should go to the classroom, or if we shouldn’t. I didn’t want to get stuck in the hallway. I was absolutely petrified,” she said.

The reason why York didn’t want to be alone in the hallway was because she couldn’t hear anything and didn’t want to get caught there. So, York had planned to stay in the locker room the whole time instead.

“It was a horrible lockdown because I was just sitting there, and I didn’t know when to get up until everyone else got up,” she said. “This was worrying because while it was fine in a drill situation, if this was a real lockdown, I would be absolutely screwed because I had no idea what was going on.”

The biggest thing that could help mitigate these types of dangerous scenarios would be better communication. If students might have any level of difficulty getting to a safe space in the event of an emergency, adults must explicitly and effectively communicate alternate ways for them to find these spaces.

When it came to the procedures communicated to them, neither Vandergrift nor York had heard anything other than the typical “run, hide, fight.”

“Nothing was communicated because when disabled people are in non-disabled spaces, we are always an afterthought. And I think that this is so clear in emergency procedures,” said York.

In the case of ELS, teachers found a successful way in communicating safety procedures for emergencies in an individualized manner for their students in the form of what they call “social stories,” or “storyboards.” Special Ed faculty member Annie Kirschbaum said ELS has specialized software that provides pictures to correlate with specific words written in first person.

After a general safety presentation is given, ELS teachers and Instructional Assistants can work with individual students to make sure they understand what actions they can take when they feel a certain way or find themselves in emergency situations.

“We individualize everything all the time,” said Kirschbaum. “We have team meetings, talk through various scenarios, and so we are comfortable with individualizing plans and coming up with solutions for specific students.”

Especially with guidance from Principal Denise Dubravec and the Director of Special Ed Megan Zajac, the ELS department has been able to bridge the gap not only between their program and the emergency response teams like police and fire departments through the storyboard initiative, but between each student and their personalized solutions.

York suggested that an alternative for students outside of ELS needing access to similarly personalized solutions for their needs could come in the form of their 504 Plans. A 504 Plan accommodates students with disabilities to help them better participate and navigate in a school setting. Different students have different 504 Plans tailored to their specific needs.

“Access is the key word. The point of the plan is to ensure if they have access to get into the building, or access to participate in class, for example,” explained 504 Coordinator Scott Durkin.

Currently, the 504 Plan does not include anything about accommodations during a school emergency or drill. Durkin felt that the 504 Plan isn’t meant to address emergency issues. Rather, it would be under jurisdiction of the advisery system to plan solutions for these students.

“If you have a question about anything, you can ask your adviser. The advisery system was put in place so that every student has a point person. If you have a question, it’s safe to say to start with your adviser,” Durkin said.

Advisers are typically sent a list of procedures prior to any drill in an email from an administrator. Drills have been carefully planned out months in advance, and procedures have been consistently updated from the scenarios discussed in board meetings, and takeaways from the local police department.

These procedures, however, are standardized to the general student body. It then falls to advisers and teachers not only to share these procedures with their students, but also ensure that any students who need better access to these safe spaces can find them.

“Our advisers are great, and our kids are excellent and extremely compliant, so we do a good job in physically going through all the steps we need,” Dubravec said.

The reality for students who need access, however, is the opposite. They clearly hear the generalized plans applicable to the majority, and rarely get individualized solutions from their advisers. The only solution for them is self-advocacy.

“For people with disabilities, there is so much advocacy we have to do for ourselves. I could have self-advocated to get this extra step of help, but a part of me goes, my school is supposed to keep me safe. Why is it my job to figure this out?” Vandergrift said.

The self-advocacy for disabled students can only come after experiencing danger first hand.

“Those things aren’t thought through until someone notices. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault,” said Kirschbaum. “I just think we live in an ableist world, and we don’t really think about that.”