In this age of lockdowns and safety drills, a new report is urging New Jersey public schools to better plan for students with disabilities as they map out how to respond to emergencies.
The report comes from the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities, following a summit of advocates and educators this summer that investigated both needs and potential remedies for helping students with a range of disabilities navigate what can be a frightening, chaotic time.
Currently, New Jersey’s voluminous law and regulations on school security only require that schools accommodate all categories of students in their planning, with little or no guidance beyond that, advocates said.
“The absence of school-wide evacuation planning for students with disabilities and special healthcare needs is a gross oversight,” said Peg Kinsell, policy director for the SPAN Parent Advocacy Network.
“‘Run, hide, fight’ is not close to sufficient planning when considering students with disabilities or special healthcare needs,” she said.
It appears the cause has some legislative backing as well, with state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) saying she would sponsor a bill requiring schools to have some planning in place.
“A child in a wheelchair, what’s the plan?” Jasey said yesterday. “Or a student who can’t keep quiet suddenly being told they can’t make any noise? There has to be a plan, and perhaps also maybe a designated person to make sure the child is OK.”
Jasey, who is co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools, said she is certain many schools already have plans in place for these students, and there was no ill will intended by not covering them in the current law.
But she is equally certain there are gaps. “It pains me that we would have to legislate something like this that is common sense,” she said.
Advocates said there are too many stories in which students with disabilities are not accommodated in the planning, with potentially tragic consequences.
Kevin Nuñez, an officer of the disabilities council who has cerebral palsy, said that as a student a decade ago he was told in an emergency to move his wheelchair into a handicapped stall in the school’s ladies bathroom, the only one big enough to hold his wheelchair.
Alone in the dark
“They told me that if a shooter came in, the bullets would have to go through the metal door and my wheelchair before they hit me,” Nunez said. “I was told to wait there, alone, in the dark. That was the plan.”
“At that time, I felt a mix of emotions: I was nervous to be alone; afraid of what might happen to me; and embarrassed and ashamed to be in the ladies bathroom,” he said. “Mostly though, I was terrified. No one knew how long I would be in there, and there was no way to confirm that it was a drill or the real thing. I was left alone to fend for myself. No child should ever have to do that.”
The report makes several specific recommendations in its call to action. Among them are:
- ensure that all students fully participate in emergency drills, “without exception”;
- ensure Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) or other planning documents for student with disabilities or health care needs include specific accommodations for what a child is to do in the case of an emergency;
- train all staff on the foregoing requirements;
- perform ongoing reviews involving families of students with disabilities and others to update individual and school-wide responses.