Addressing the Needs of Students with Disabilities in Crisis Planning

by Barley Snyder
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In light of the recent events across the country, school districts should review of emergency management plans in place for all students, including students with special needs.

Emergency management plans must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) and the Individuals with Disabilities Act. Emergency planning should be part of the Individualized Education Program and Section 504 planning process. The plans must include evacuation and sheltering plans for students with special needs and address individual plans that have been created for students outlining their specific needs in such situations.

Mobility issues are not the only areas of concern that must be considered. Emergency procedures must address necessary accommodations for individuals with mental, physical, motor, developmental and sensory disabilities. Consideration also must be given to the social, emotional and behavioral needs of students that can be impacted when circumstances require an emergency management plan. All of this requires thoughtful pre-planning and regular review and adjustment given the needs of the current student population.

There may be individuals who require assistance that have cognitive, learning, developmental or medical disabilities. Students with learning disabilities may have difficulty reading or understanding complicated directions for evacuation, requiring the use of more simplified diagrams and staff directives in the event of an emergency. Special accommodations will need to be made for students with sensory impairments. In addition, temporary conditions may result in Section 504 accommodations that may also create limitations that require special assistance. There is no “one-size fits all” approach to addressing this issue. The needs of all potentially impacted individuals must be considered when establishing and making periodic adjustments to emergency procedures.

Evacuation procedures outlining steps to ensure the safe and rapid exit from school district facilities for students with disabilities is a vital element of a comprehensive emergency action plan. Primary and secondary routes for students throughout the school day must be considered. Special assistance required through the use of buddies (individuals trained on the various techniques and equipment used to safely evacuate students with special needs) or specialized equipment must also be implemented where necessary. Emergency evacuation devices including wheelchairs, slings, stretchers, sleds and evacuation chairs may be necessary to assist the transport of individuals with disabilities.

If emergency evacuation devices are determined to be necessary to meet individual needs and are incorporated into a comprehensive emergency plan, staff must be appropriately trained with the proper operation of such devices with regular practice and drills. Alternatives such as the direct physical transport of individuals should be incorporated to address situations in which debris and other types of obstructions may limit the use of emergency evacuation devices.

These are just a few of the areas that should be carefully examined in crafting an emergency plan. The Council for Exceptional Children article in Teaching Exceptional Children, "Supporting Students with Disabilities During School Crises" is an excellent starting point in further examining this issue.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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