Lifestyle

How can we prepare our kids with special needs for a school crisis?

The author's 6-year-old son waits to enter his kindergarten classroom in Chicago.
The author's 6-year-old son waits to enter his kindergarten classroom in Chicago.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, started after the fire alarm went off for the second time that day. It's this detail that I keep thinking about because my son with autism, at his school in Chicago, hates unexpected noises and changes in his routine.

Would he have calmly followed his teacher out the door again? Once they realized it was not a fire drill, would he have quickly gone back inside and hidden like they had practiced? Would he have stayed quiet, which is difficult for him even under typical circumstances?

In the weeks since the deadly mass school shooting, I can't get these questions out of my head. My son, who is 6, hasn't seen the news of the shooting and likely would not be able to process it, anyway. He's an intelligent and literal child who needs tangible, visual evidence to understand how the world works – or doesn't. Because of that, I am struggling with how to prepare my kindergartner and his 3-year-old brother, who is also autistic and in preschool, for any number of emergency scenarios that could happen at school, including an active shooter.

I've had numerous conversations in recent days with other parents of children with special needs about how we can better prepare our children for a potential crisis at school. Our children's disabilities can make it difficult for them to navigate a normal school day. Unexpected drills, loud noises, demands to be extra quiet or to move quickly can completely overwhelm them. If the drill involves exiting the building, is there an adult assigned specifically to help? Will someone make sure a child doesn't run off? Is someone bringing the medications?

"We don't have a national model. And from district to district, they may have a general safety plan, but even within that safety plan it may or may not address students with disabilities," said Dusty Columbia Embury, an associate professor of special education at Eastern Kentucky University who has co-authored a guide for supporting students with disabilities during school crises.

Columbia Embury and her colleague, Laura Clarke, began researching school safety protocols for children with special needs after the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. Columbia Embury and Clarke both have children with disabilities, and their research, which resulted in a checklist for teachers, came from their own questions about how their children might react in a crisis. Recommendations include giving students multiple opportunities to practice a safety drill, practicing in every classroom where the student might be during the day and keeping copies of the plan in the school office and with the student.

"We really have to make sure we've planned for our students, particularly for these students who wouldn't necessarily survive on their own," she told me.

A viral Facebook post a few days after the Parkland shooting from a high school teacher in a wheelchair was meant to uplift us, to remind us that in an inclusive world kids have thought through what it means to have disabled teachers and students in their midst. Ohio teacher Marissa Schimmoeller posted to social media that she told her own students to leave her behind because she could not protect them the way an able-bodied teacher might be able to. "Mrs. Schimmoeller, we already talked about it," the students told her. "If anything happens, we are going to carry you."

The fact is that a 2004 federal mandate requires administrators at Delphos Jefferson High School in Ohio to have a plan for Schimmoeller and every child in the school who has a disability. The students shouldn't have to take it upon themselves to help their teacher, although it's heartwarming that they did. The adults in charge are supposed to be on it.

The emergency plan for students with special needs in Marin County, California, details factors that elevate a risk during an emergency and strategies and how it might be mitigated. For example, a child with an emotional disturbance may have limited ability to understand environmental events and may disobey or resist direction. The plan recommends "regulated sensory input" for that child. A child with health issues may need to access medication. A child with autism may need familiarity with the drill itself.

"If you assure that you have planned for the most vulnerable in our school, then you have planned for everyone," said Mary Jane Burke, the Marin County superintendent of schools and a former special education teacher. "That's a good way to look at all of education."

Parents of children with special needs also can advocate for these strategies through their child's individual education plan, or IEP, for accommodations that can be implemented for emergency drills, special education advocates advise. Our school district in Chicago requires that all schools have a safety plan and within that, a specialized one for every student with special needs who attends.

I'm drafting one for my kindergartner's upcoming IEP meeting, using Columbia Embury's individualized lockdown plan as a guide.

"I would love to see a question on the last page of the IEP that asks if this student needs support in the event of a life [threatening] emergency," Columbia Embury said. "If this student would require support to safely evacuate or safely shelter in place we need to have a plan in place."

After watching a NowThis video interview between a Parkland student with autism and his father, I'm able to imagine my sons processing the danger as autistic teenagers, and I am overwhelmed, moved, proud and conflicted – the typical range of emotions I feel as an autism parent whenever I watch my sons navigate a world that doesn't understand them, that isn't prepared for them.

In the video, Holden Kasky, a high school freshman, describes what it was like when the police entered the school. "I was nervous," he tells his father, who is interviewing him for the video. "Because there was shouting, and they had a bunch of guns pointed at my face, with flashlights shining right in my face."

My sons are still young, but like the Parkland students, they are part of a generation for whom active-shooter drills are simply part of their school routine. There was an emergency drill at their neighborhood school in Chicago their first day back this past fall after we had been overseas in Morocco. It took me by a surprise – and a few moments – to understand what was happening when I was told to "shelter in place" in the school office, where I had gone to file paperwork after leaving the boys in their new classrooms. Over the walkie-talkie, a school administrator called for the drill to be repeated. Some children apparently hadn't been quiet.

I don't know if there were special procedures in place for my autistic sons during that drill. I'm ashamed to admit I didn't think to ask.

Advocates argue schools must develop a plan that takes into account children with disabilities, including students who use a wheelchair, students with hearing impairments, students with sensory processing issues and students with autism. It must be practiced, more than once or twice a year, or whatever might be mandated by state law. We need assurance that our children won't be punished or disciplined for not getting it right the first time.

A friend who is a school nurse recommended the teachers put a play tent in a corner of a classroom that the boys know to pop up during a shelter-in-place drill and then crawl inside with a book – or something else to keep them occupied.

Many of us already have to battle our school districts to comply with the federal law that grants our children basic rights to an education. My own school district in Chicago is in the midst of an unprecedented state review into special education practices after a public radio investigation found services were intentionally curtailed to save money. This added responsibility to make sure the schools are prepared for a mass shooting feels particularly daunting. But many parents of kids with special needs, unfortunately, know the drill. If we don't ask, it won't happen.

I'm asking now.

• Jackie Spinner was a staff writer for The Washington Post for 14 years. She is now an associate professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago and a correspondent for Columbia Journalism Review.

Loading more

Digital Access

Digital Access
Access nwherald.com from all your digital devices and receive breaking news and updates from around the area.

Home Delivery

Home Delivery
Local news, prep sports, Chicago sports, local and regional entertainment, business, home and lifestyle, food, classified and more! News you use every day! Daily, weekend and Sunday packages.

Text Alerts

Text Alerts
Stay connected to us wherever you are! Get breaking news updates along with other area information sent to you as a text message to your wireless device.

Email Newsletters

Email Newsletters
We'll deliver news & updates to your inbox. Plan your weekend and catch up on the news with our newsletters.