In May 2022, disabled student Anja, 16, was in her school’s cafeteria, completely unaware that a student was headed toward her high school in Chicago with a gun.
Fortunately, the police apprehended the armed student before an active shooting could break out.
But Anja was terrified after hearing about the threat. She knew too well that, as a disabled student, she would not have been protected if that situation had escalated.
“The next day, I kept looking over my shoulder because I couldn’t shake the feeling that something would happen again,” Anja told HuffPost in an email interview. “And if it did, I knew there was no protocol or system in place to actually protect me.”
The K-12 School Shooting Database, run by The Violence Project, a nonprofit gun violence research center, has tracked 118 school shootings so far in 2023, with 85 fatalities or injuries on school property from gun-related incidents.
Schools across the U.S. have pre-planned emergency preparedness protocols for what to do in the event of emergencies such as active shooter threats, fires and natural disasters. But disabled students, as well as disabled teachers and staff, are consistently left out of such emergency preparedness plans, according to disability advocates.
HuffPost spoke to disabled students who detailed the consequences of schools discounting their needs and lives in emergency plans and discussed what needs to be done to ensure safety in these life-or-death moments.
During school shooting drills, students typically practice hiding in classrooms or designated areas of the building, where they’re told to remain silent. Federal agencies advise students to take a “run, hide and fight” approach in the event of a real school shooting.
These protocols and evacuation plans often ignore disabled people’s needs, which says a lot about how the people who create such plans value disabled lives, said Katherine Yoder, executive director of the Adult Advocacy Centers, an organization dedicated to improving access, care and equity for adults with disabilities who are victims of crime.
Yoder notes that in a real shooting, students who use wheelchairs might not be able to hide easily from a shooter. Students who experience overstimulation in loud, energetic or stressful situations might not be able to remain silent without the appropriate sensory tools.
According to the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, disabled and multiply marginalized people are disproportionately impacted in disasters, emergencies and crises. Data reveals that disabled people are two to four times more likely to die or be injured in natural disasters or conflict situations than nondisabled people.
The Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies works directly with communities to provide support in creating disability-inclusive disaster response, planning and services.
“Active shooter protocols need to better support disabled students by actually considering disabled students,” Anja said.
She continued: “It seems basic, and it is, but the country clearly needs to start with the basics and start considering that protocols need to be updated to consider students with disabilities. Even better, protocols should be designed with the needs of students with disabilities in mind first, so we don’t have to feel like afterthoughts.”
Emergency Evacuation Plans Treat Disabled Lives As An Afterthought
Beyond the lack of school shooting protocols in place for disabled students, advocates say disabled lives are often treated as an afterthought in other emergency situations, too.
Nearly 7 million disabled students in the U.S. make up 14% of national public school enrollment, according to Pew Research. To prepare for emergencies, alternative and specific evacuation protocols can be established for disabled students as part of their individualized education plan (IEP) or 504 plan.
Public elementary and secondary schools are required by law to develop a formal plan to support disabled students. A 504 plan, created for students who have a disability identified under the law, outlines specific accommodations needed to ensure academic success and access to the learning environment. IEPs are plans that lay out special education instructions and related support and services for disabled students.
But these plans don’t always outline emergency evacuation protocols for disabled students. For example, high school student Madison, 15, from Pembroke Pines, Florida, told HuffPost that a protocol was never outlined in her 504 plan. Instead, she found out what the protocol was just hours before the first fire drill of her freshman year.
“I happened to be in the office and they told me ahead of time… ‘Oh, by the way, there’s going to be a fire drill sometime today and the plan for you is really just to wait. If you’re upstairs, just wait in the stairwell,’” Madison told HuffPost. “Once that happened, I just waited in the stairwell and one of the security guards came down and explained the plan to me.”
When these plans do include directions for disabled students, the protocols vary, depending on the student and their needs. But advocates say most schools have protocols requiring disabled students to shelter in place and wait inside the building for emergency personnel to rescue them.
This was the emergency evacuation plan for author Emily Ladau back when she was in high school in Long Island, New York, in 2005. Ladau, who is a wheelchair user, was given three options in the event of a real emergency, which were decided upon during her 504 plan meetings: Shelter in place, find the strongest teacher and have them carry her down the stairs, or go to a window to have first responders help her out of the building once they arrived.
“Their emergency plan was really to not have an emergency plan. It really made me feel like they couldn’t be bothered to protect me, and it was very much every person for themselves. I felt more like a burden than someone who was worthy of being protected,” Ladau told HuffPost.
Ladau recounted a fearful moment when the fire alarm went off unexpectedly, and she had to shelter in place with a teacher, not knowing if there was actually a fire or not.
“The teacher tried to make me feel better, and she said, ‘Don’t worry, the doors on the classrooms are supposed to have a three-hour burn time,’” Ladau said. “That has stuck with me since that moment, because I feel like I was essentially told ‘Hopefully, they’ll get you within three hours, otherwise, you could just burn with the door.’”
Today, over a decade since Ladau was in high school and in the wake of ongoing gun violence affecting students nationwide, shelter-in-place protocols remain a common emergency practice for disabled students in schools across the country. But the execution of these plans is often flawed, or the protocols are simply not practiced, resulting in unpreparedness.
“Their emergency plan was really to not have an emergency plan. It really made me feel like they couldn’t be bothered to protect me, and it was very much every person for themselves.”
Back in Chicago, Anja said that the only emergency protocol in place for her at her school is a fire evacuation plan that requires her to wait in the designated “area of rescue assistance” until the fire department comes to help her evacuate. She notes that an adult is supposed to be in the rescue area to make sure all of the disabled students are safe and to communicate with the fire department over an intercom.
But when the fire alarm went off one day last semester, the evacuation didn’t go as planned.
Upon hearing the alarm, Anja tried to go to the rescue area, per protocol. But she ended up getting stuck in her wheelchair behind a locked door. Fortunately, a teacher saw her and unlocked the door. Anja then continued to the rescue area, only to find that there were no adults in the room, which meant the fire department didn’t know she was in there.
“Luckily, it was only another few minutes until everyone started coming back into the building and everything ended up OK,” Anja said, noting that it was likely a false alarm rather than a real fire. “But that experience has really stuck with me because it showed how vulnerable I really am in emergency situations.”
“None of the protocol is well executed, or designed with me in mind,” Anja added. “In fact, the protocol is designed so far without me in mind that it allows for me to be left behind.”
Anja’s school did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on the incident.
Madison has a similar emergency evacuation plan as Anja, in which she has to wait in the stairwell for the firefighters to rescue her — all while her peers get to evacuate before her. The evacuation plan makes her feel unsafe, she said, especially given the rise of school shootings happening around the country,
“With all the school shootings, I have no way of evacuating down the stairs. I’m in a motorized wheelchair, and I obviously can’t go down the stairs. So I have to wait and just hope, and it doesn’t make me feel safe,” Madison said.
Attempts To Fix Emergency Evacuation Protocols
When it comes to fixing emergency preparation and management practices anywhere, changes tend to be very reactive, rather than proactive.
Disability rights advocate Julia Wolhandler, who has a background in inclusive and accessible emergency management pertaining to natural disasters, told HuffPost that there is often a lot of “red tape” that gets in the way of making progress and reform.
“It’s always, ‘I’ve got to contact and approve it through this person,’” Wolhandler said. “So it often just is forgotten about, or there’s so much time that’s passed in between trying to change things that sometimes change just doesn’t take place until something horrible happens.”
Over the past few decades, disabled people have spoken out about the need for better protocols for evacuating high-rise buildings in the event of an emergency — a major issue that has drastically impacted the disability community in the past.
According to a 2001 article by New Mobility, a few wheelchair users working in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, were carried down to safety in emergency evacuation chairs when the towers were attacked. But most others decided to do what was expected of them: remain in place and wait for someone to rescue them.
The outcomes of that horrific life-or-death moment were drastically different for the people who used evacuation chairs versus the people who waited. Those who used the evacuation chairs lived.
Those who waited for rescue died.
Even after the horrifying incidents that occurred on 9/11, emergency planning continued to fail disabled people across the country.
In 2011, the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled filed a class-action lawsuit against New York City, alleging that the city’s emergency preparedness plans were noncompliant with Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and failed to address the needs of its 900,000 disabled residents.
The trial, which took place in 2013, illuminated the lack of evacuation systems for large groups in high-rise buildings, ineffective communication systems in emergencies and inaccessible public transportation in emergency evacuations, among other gaps in planning. A federal judge ruled that New York City had discriminated against disabled people by failing to plan for their needs in such large-scale disasters.
Following that major victory, disability advocacy groups filed a lawsuit against Washington, D.C., for alleged deficiencies regarding emergency evacuations for disabled people during large-scale disasters.
After years of negotiations, a settlement agreement was reached in 2019, in which the city agreed to a comprehensive emergency plan to meet the needs of disabled people in the event of natural disasters, terrorist attacks and more. After the settlement, Wolhandler even worked with a school for disabled kids to help create an evacuation plan that was effective for them and could then be replicated for the rest of Washington, D.C.
How Can Emergency Evacuation Protocols Be Improved For Disabled Students?
With the continual surge in school shootings in the U.S., advocates emphasize the need for efforts at both the local and federal levels to address failures in emergency protocols for disabled students.
While attending EmpowHer Camp, a program run by the nonprofit Disability EmpowHer Network, last summer, Madison began working on a local project to address issues with emergency evacuation protocols at her school in Florida. Madison has met with her school’s principal to discuss the idea of installing evacuation chairs in the building and will be meeting with the district soon to discuss approval for the project.
“Ideally, I believe that there should be an evacuation chair on every floor of the building,” she said. “It’s really not safe for us just to be able to wait. That’s excluding us from the safety plan to evacuate.”
Some U.S. schools have installed evacuation chairs that help students with physical or mobility disabilities go downstairs during an evacuation, which can make all the difference in a life-or-death moment.
Madison recently surveyed 501 disabled students — more than half of whom were in grades K-12 — about their emergency evacuation plans. According to results that were shared with HuffPost, 45% of students had an emergency evacuation protocol involving waiting in an “area of refuge,” 22% had a plan to use an evacuation chair and 31% had no plan to evacuate offered to them.
Meanwhile, at the federal level, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) introduced three bills on March 30 that aim to make educational settings — K-12 schools and higher education institutions — more accessible to disabled students and help ensure their safety at school through better emergency procedures and training.
The Promoting Responsible Emergency Protocols (PREP) For All Students Act, for example, emphasizes that a “one-size fits all” approach to these protocols is inadequate. The PREP Act would ensure that public schools, education centers and higher education institutions have tools to create inclusive emergency preparedness protocols.
The bill would also establish a federal advisory council composed of federal agencies, youth with disabilities, educators and advocates “to develop guidelines and recommendations for the implementation of accessible, developmentally appropriate, culturally aware, and trauma-informed emergency preparedness protocols.”
Wolhandler said she’s particularly excited to see that disabled youth will be included in the conversation since disabled people who have lived through these experiences will have valuable insight into how to address these issues.
“When I was growing up, we definitely had evacuations for threats. But we did not experience what today’s students are experiencing,” Wolhandler said. “No one knows except those students that are going through it. So if they’re truly being invited to the table as part of this potential bill, then I totally applaud that.”
“It just makes me sad to think that we need a law to tell people that disabled lives are worth protecting.”
But advocates worry that the bill lags in some areas, such as by failing to include emergency personnel in the discussions, as well as training so that emergency workers can learn how to best support disabled students in these situations.
Wolhandler thinks that emergency personnel should be included, but said they should only be there to listen, rather than actively shaping policy for evacuating disabled students in emergency situations since they don’t have the relevant or lived experiences that disabled students and educators have.
Meanwhile, Ladau worries that these emergency preparedness bills will be used as a Band-Aid attempt to address gun violence without pushing for stronger gun control legislation.
Still, she believes the legislation is long overdue and is grateful that it has been proposed.
“It just makes me sad to think that we need a law to tell people that disabled lives are worth protecting,” Ladau said. “I’m glad it exists. I wish it didn’t have to.”
As legislation advances, advocates say there are immediate actions that can be taken to address safety concerns. Yoder said that people should make sure emergency protocols are explicitly written into and carried out in IEP plans. Additionally, technology and tools that support the disability community in these situations can be improved.
Yoder suggests that schools hire disabled actors to reenact emergency scenarios, as has been done with mock car crashes, to ensure that students, staff and emergency personnel know what to do in these situations.
But there also needs to be action in the aftermath of disasters and shootings, said Yoder, who holds degrees in social psychology and criminal justice. She said that having trauma counselors who are equipped and trained to work with disabled people is important but often gets left out of the discussions that take place after disasters or shootings.
Studies show that people who live through a disaster or traumatic experience such as a shooting exhibit emotional instability, stress reactions, anxiety, trauma and other psychological symptoms. Research also shows that people living with disabilities, including people with mental illness, were four times more likely to attempt suicide than individuals without a disability or mental illness.
But according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, disabled people face numerous barriers to mental health care, including practitioners who hold ableist perceptions about disability. Yoder notes that counselors are often made available to students following a traumatic event but don’t have expertise in disability.
“A lot of times, we hear back that the counselors don’t have expertise in that disability. And so it really comes down to … not just looking at it, like, ‘Oh, it’s too bad that this ended up happening, we have the support for the other kids, but we don’t have to offer it for the kids with the disabilities,’” Yoder said.
She continued: “We’re all interconnected, and the only way to really provide holistic services after this is to include all the students because every experience is going to be different, but the path to healing has to be just as individualized.”
Advocates for the disability community maintain that finding solutions to emergency evacuation issues involves engaging with and including all disabled people — especially those with intersectional identities. Yoder emphasized that disabled people are great at coming up with creative and innovative solutions that can be implemented and adapted on the spur of the moment during emergencies.
“When it comes to adapting things and thinking outside the box,” Yoder said, “it’s a skill set that all of us who are in the [disability] community have, mostly because it’s a survival skill.”