Back To School: Keeping Your Special Needs Child Safe
“Hold Me.” “Send Wine”. The social media updates are a never ending stream of back to school. Photo after photo of new outfits, backpacks and nervous smiles. We want them to go, yet still want to keep them close. We say goodbye each morning, trusting that at the end of each school day, our kids will come home safe. But what if ? What if the unthinkable happens?
Elementary students at Plaza Towers were most likely loading up their backpacks and preparing to get in line for dismissal last May when a tornado tore through Moore, Oklahoma at the end of the school day. Children filled the halls when the walls started coming down. Nine students were killed, and both Plaza Towers and Briarwood Elementary were completely destroyed.
In December, horrified parents across the country watched tragedy unfold with the aftermath of the school shooting at Sandy Hook, in Newtown, Connecticut . Hours after the mass shooting occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School parents were still waiting for news, trying to locate their children and hoping to be reunited with missing students. Heroic actions of the school staff saved lives. Teachers protected students, some pushing children into closets and bathrooms to escape the steady stream of gunfire. Unfortunately 20 students and 6 adults still died at the hands of the gunman.
What if an emergency occurred at your neighborhood school? Does your child have any type of medical condition that can be affected by stress or requires critical medication ( a heart condition, diabetes, etc.)? Does your child have a learning disability, a processing disorder, autism, asthma or allergies, an anxiety disorder or like me, are you the parent of a child with multiple disabilities? If you can answer yes to any of these …then you have to think about the unthinkable.
You have to think about the type of emergency that is every parent’s worst nightmare. You have to think about not being able to reach your child, or the possibility of a lockdown or shelter-in -place occurring that could last an entire day, or result in a school emergency evacuation, and then potentially a several hour evacuation check-in and check-out procedure. You have to imagine your child in the middle of this very type of emergency.
Last summer Zoe was preparing to start 6th grade at our local middle school when we learned the self contained special education classroom was located on the second floor, and for Zoe and her power wheelchair, accessible only by elevator. I had immediate concerns for Zoe’s health;her neurological condition that causes dizziness in elevators, her low vision and the idea she would be driving her wheelchair on the second story landing,the longer distance and time it would take to reach her classroom in case of a seizure or emergency, the amount of energy and time she would spend going in and out of her classroom throughout the day.
The local fire department advised that in fire emergency the elevator would be disabled, and Zoe would wait on the second floor landing to be carried down. The local fire official explained how well built the second story landings were, that they were designed to sustain heat and fire for extended periods of time. He also mentioned that first responders would be required to conduct school drills just like a real emergency, and carry Zoe down from the second floor. I could not imagine explaining this to my daughter Zoe who is very socially aware, and self conscious about being different. Still, it was the image of Zoe waiting for rescue from the second story building that scared me the most. What If? I began wondering.
My husband and I had no other option than to hire and attorney and in the end, the school did the right thing. The special education, self-contained classroom was moved to identical empty classrooms located on the first floor, directly below the original classroom.
That experience led me to research how my daughter could be best protected in emergency situations. I talked to the experts and developed an Individual Emergency Preparedness Response Plan for Zoe's safety in the event of a school emergency. This plan details her specific disabilites and what adaptions will be needed during emergency procedures to ensure her safety.
Most emergency situations fall into one of two categories; Unintentional; a natural or weather related event, or Intentional: A potentially violent situation including a terrorist attack or other threatening situation. The emergency responses to these situations include sheltering-in-place;where students stay or go in a designated place, a lock down,; where students stay in a protected space or an evacuation; where students are evacuated to another area. At the evacuation area, there can be a time-intensive check-in and check-out procedure. Consider how all of these events can affect the health and safety of your child.
Contact your local school to arrange a meeting with the team responsible for emergency preparedness response. At this meeting, you would like to have present your school administrator, your nurse, and a trained emergency response official for your district or regional area that interface with local emergency Fire and Police Departments. The discussion from this meeting will ultimately result in an official plan that will be introduced to the hands-on team that works with your child.
As a team identify the challenges for your child in each potential situation. For instance, for a “ shelter-in-place” or “ lock down” response, would your child have everything needed for prolonged period of time? I knew that Zoe was sometimes separated from her backpack that hangs on the back of her wheelchair, when her wheelchair was parked outside a small classroom and she would walk with assistance, a few feet inside the classroom. When we discussed this response, I realized that Zoe should never be separated from her backpack, and that I need to make sure she has all the supplies she might need for an extended response.
In the same situation, there may be critical medicine, a glucose monitor, or other medical tools or supplies that may need to be kept in the classroom. We made special arrangements for Zoe’s sensitivity to heat during extended drills or shelter in place procedures that may occur during extreme weather conditions.
For an evacuation response, we arranged for an extra manual wheelchair with seatbelt, to be kept near Zoe’s classroom and I chose for her to be assisted onto a typical bus ( she is able to climb the 2-3 stairs with a strong assist). I felt this would be a much faster procedure in evacuating my child. Without this specific plan in place, it is likely that Zoe would have been evacuated in her power chair, and that in a chaotic, emergency type situation, not only would it be difficult for her to navigate, but then she would have to wait for a specially equipped bus. Perhaps your child should have an aide assigned to assist in emergency due to processing issues, students with vision or hearing impairments may require guided access to increase speed of response. Does your child’s medical issues require a “ Go-kit” ? A duplicate kit of required medication, supplies or food, packed and prepared, to be grabbed in event of an evacuation?
Once you have assessed your childs needs, and developed a plan- supplies may need to be gathered, and adaptive equipment reviewed. For Zoe, due to her mobility impairment, we discussed her aide practicing multiple accessible evacuation routes in the “ drill” setting. All of the aides that work in her classroom were trained regarding the Emergency Response Plan and Procedure.
I watched Sandy Hook on the news last year, and even the tornado torn Plaza Towers news reports and tried to imagine my child in the middle of such chaos. People with disabilities were among the hardest hit in disaster areas of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Zoe has an Individualized Education Program, (IEP), a written statement of the educational program designed to meet her individual needs, and now, she has an Individual Emergency Response Plan too, also based on her individual needs.
Each morning, I kiss her goodbye and remind her to just " do her best". Sometimes, I still worry about her safety, but I know that I have done my best too- and as parents, that is all we can do.
Note: Ask about an Individual Emergency Response/ Preparedness Plan at your school. Public schools are required to have a a specific plan for students with disabilites. Make sure your child’s plan is in writing referring to this Presidential Mandate: On July 22, 2004, President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13347, Individuals with Disabilities in Emergency Preparedness, which adds to existing legislation policy to ensure that the safety and security of individuals with disabilities are appropriately supported and requires public entities to include the unique needs of individuals with disabilities in their emergency preparedness planning.