By Glenn Martins
September was National Preparedness Month, so Fall is a good time for school administrators to consider how well they are prepared to prevent and manage the unanticipated.
According to former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, “The midst of a crisis is not the time to start figuring out who ought to do what. At that moment, everyone involved – from top to bottom – should know the drill and know each other.”
School-based crisis planning means planning for all children, including those with disabilities. The crisis team should include a disability specialist from the school’s multidisciplinary team and a mental health crisis counselor.
A “one size fits all” approach to planning will not work when considering the needs of students with disabilities. A child with mobility challenges will have different needs in an emergency than a child with autism, or a child who is blind. The team should consider how best to plan for students with epilepsy, ADHD, mental health issues, Aspergers, and other “invisible” disabilities, whose support needs may be less obvious in an emergency.
Parents and teachers have a deep understanding of the unique needs of each child, and should be consulted during emergency preparedness planning. Because each student with a disability has an Individual Education Plan (IEP), the crisis team can coordinate emergency strategies with the plan’s existing accommodations and modifications.
Local first responders are also an irreplaceable resource to inform the school’s crisis team of the best ways to support students with disabilities. School leaders should inform first responders about the nature of their students’ special needs, and should include first responders in exercises and drills when ever possible. When students with disabilities are included in preparation and practice sessions that approximate what could happen in a crisis, they will cope better because they know what to expect and what role they need to play.
Students with wheelchairs or other mobility issues should practice communicating with first responders about how best to transport them. Those with cognitive or mental health issues should have a written statement or picture cards to describe their needs in simple terms.
Experts recommend that schools prepare a “Go Bag” with 2-3 days of life-saving supplies, including stable food, water, a first aid kit, area maps, flashlights, radios, batteries and a whistle. Some students with a disability may need a personal “Go Bag”, including medications and a copy of prescriptions, dosage information, vital contact information, written description of special needs, and comfort items.
Experts point out that most students survive emergency situations. Even in the most tragic incidents, there remain survivors who are grateful that thoughtful leaders planned and practiced a crisis program in advance.
Glenn Martins is a New Jersey School Psychologist and Assistant Director for the Y.A.L.E. School in southern New Jersey. He recently retired from the Hamilton Township Public Schools, Atlantic County where he worked as Supervisor of Special Education and Emergency Management Coordinator. Martins is Board Certified in School Crisis Response by the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress
Editor’s note: Parents and guardians of Y.A.L.E. School students can subscribe to Y.A.L.E. Emergency Alerts to be notified via text message and email in the event of an emergency. Just go to our Emergency Alerts sign-up page. Of course any urgent messages are also posted on the front page of our site too!