By Mary Kate McGrath - October 31, 2019
In 2018, the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, raised new concerns about preparing students for a crisis. One detail in particular - a fire alarm which went off twice during one day, causing students to exit classrooms into the path of the assailant, caught the attention of parents of children with students of autism, according to the Washington Post. Jackie Spinner, the mother of a 6 year old son with autism, worried that her own son would not return to the classroom and remain inside once it became clear it was not a fire drill, or if he would stay quiet, given that doing so is difficult for him in typical circumstances.
Across the United States, parents of children with special needs have voiced similar concerns, and any proactive school safety plan should take students with disabilities into account. For example, lockdown drills, which cause many K-12 students anxiety, can be especially difficult for students with autism. Many individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities, such as autism or down syndrome, struggle with unexpected noises and changes in routine. For younger students, it may be difficult to process hypothetical emergency scenarios, making an impromptu drill even more difficult for the student to navigate.
In an era with increased rates of gun violence and other major risks, such as tornadoes, wildfires, or severe weather events, many schools have developed effective crisis plans. However, too few schools have plans which adequately address the complex needs of students with disabilities, and school safety managers must be responsible for ensuring that students with disabilities are able to stay safe during any crisis. Over the years, parents, teachers, administrators, and advocates have collaborated to find strategies to better teach safety skills to students with autism and other developmental disabilities.
During an annual school safety audit, administrators should evaluate current emergency planning protocol to better accommodate for students with disabilities. Safety managers must acknowledge the increased risk factors for students with disabilities during an emergency scenario.
In 2014, Sage Journal published a paper titled, “Supporting Students With Disabilities During School Crises: A Teacher’s Guide.” The guide offered various recommendations to teachers looking to improve safety procedures for students with autism. For example, individual emergency or lockdown plans which provide explicit instructions and needed support for students with disabilities can be helpful. Researchers encouraged schools to add a simple question to the end of an individualized education program (IEP) meeting with parents or guardians that asks: “Is there a need for a specific plan for this student’s individual needs if there were a crisis in the building?” This way, while creating and implementing a school emergency preparedness plan, teachers and leaders can take into consideration the range of intellectual, social, emotional, and physical development among students with disabilities.
Among resources for teachers, SAGE Journal provides an “emergency procedural plan checklist.” By following the checklist, teachers can develop better strategies for helping students with autism understand emergency drills. Make sure students know how, when, and where to go during an emergency and when they can come out. Demonstrate which words might be said to indicate safety, such as an “all clear” announcement or law enforcement identifying themselves. The checklist stressed how integrating safety procedure into daily classroom reality can make the drills less jarring or scary, a practice which benefits the entire school community, not just students with autism.
Instead of doing the lockdown or emergency drill as monthly or annual event, provide lots of opportunities to practice the emergency plan, as many students need multiple opportunities to practice or gain skills for mastery. Also, practice the lockdown drills in every classroom the students may be in - for certain kids, generalization may be a challenge, so it’s critical that these skills are practiced in any community space the students might be in. For example, make sure that students know where to go if they’re in a restroom or getting a hallpass from the office, as per the SAGE Journal checklist.
Presenting a visual aid can also be a strategy for teaching safety skills to students with autism in early classroom settings. Hailey Deloya-Vegter, a K-8 autism specialist for Minneapolis public schools, said that she hangs posters showing a lockdown “story”, with visual symbols to show important behaviors such as staying quiet, sitting on your hands, or staying low and out of sight, according to Scholastic. In the article, “Supporting Students With Disabilities During School Crises”, researchers recommend if a student with autism already uses a picture schedule throughout their day, a new schedule with the lockdown or other emergency procedure can be used on emergency planning days.
SAGE Journal’s recommendations also included several useful tips for teachers, administrators, or staff. If a drill involves leaving the building, the journal reccomends reminds administrators to ensure an adult is designated to help students with autism or other needs. Involving law enforcement or EMTs in emergency planning and drills is equally necessary, so those teams know of any students with disabilities who may require specific needs during an emergency or specialized procedures.
Encourage teachers to prepare an emergency bag, as well. The bag should contain items to keep students occupied and calm during an emergency, such as favorite items, snacks, or games, with a particular emphasis on stuffed animals, headphones, stress balls, or any other item which might help anxiety. Of course, teachers should also keep any necessary medical supplies, such as masks for students with respiratory disorders, snacks or medications for students with diabetes, medication for students with epilepsy or allergies, as well as any other medication students require.
Unfortunately, there is no federal mandate for how best to teach safety skills, so every district or school may have a different procedure. A best practice for administrators or community safety leaders is to reach out to parents of students with autism to better understand their needs, especially during an emergency.. A mass notification system can be a useful tool for informing families of any emergency drills or planning occurring on campus, so they can prepare their kids for any potential changes or disruptions in scheduling.
By leveraging a panic button app, teachers can also reduce response time and help first responders better address students with disabilities needs. The app also allows teachers to communicate internally. If a student with a disability is having a medical crisis during an emergency, for example, the teacher can reach out to administrators or nurse to seek further assistance.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
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