If drills are intended to keep students safe, it’s essential that all students be included.
I worked in special education for more than 20 years as a teacher and school administrator. Over the last 16 years, as a university professor, I have taught dozens of aspiring superintendents and special education directors about inclusive practices and relevant legal issues. Yet, despite all my experience in this field, I had no idea, until recently — thanks mainly to word of mouth from graduate students and outraged parents — that large numbers of students with disabilities are being excluded from school safety drills, leaving them woefully unprepared for any and all kinds of emergencies.
Since the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings, we have come to spend $3 billion per year, nationwide, to promote safe school environments (Hsu, 2018). As numerous commentators have pointed out, much of that money has gone to build fortifications and conduct hyper-realistic intruder drills. Less often discussed, though, is that many educators have decided that safety drills are not suitable for all students. In turn, many parents of kids with disabilities have been asked to sign opt-out forms for their children, or they have been told that their children’s individualized education plan (IEP) permits them to be exempted from safety instruction and simulations (which is patently untrue and contrary to the safety provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).
I’ve heard three main justifications — none of them persuasive — for this trend. First is the idea that certain young people should be protected from the trauma associated with drills. Students with autism, for example, should be spared the dysregulation caused by yelping sirens, strobes, or faux intruders firing dud rounds in hallways. In response, however, I would argue that no safety drill should be conducted in a way that traumatizes any students. If a mock shooter scenario is too disturbing for children, then reconfigure it. This doesn’t necessarily mean weakening the exercise, but rather focusing on the teaching objectives and modulating the drama.
Second is the fear that students with disabilities will behave in unexpected ways, disrupting the safety drill for everybody else. For instance, they might “freak out,” scream, flap their arms, push, or freeze, making it impossible for other students to practice an orderly evacuation. However, students with disabilities will be part of any real evacuation, so what sense does it make to practice without them? Staff, first responders, and other students will need to know how to interact with and help them when the time comes. Moreover, forensic studies of emergencies have consistently found that all sorts of people (with and without disabilities) behave in unpredictable ways during such moments, and as special education attorney James Sibley (2019) puts it, “We often underestimate how well kids with special needs respond during a crisis.”
Third is simple indifference. Research on school safety is rife with findings about apathy on the part of students, teachers, and administrators alike. School leaders often treat safety instruction and drills as mere bureaucratic requirements to be checked off — and if the school is just going through the motions, then why bother including students with disabilities? But of course, such apathy is indefensible on the part of any school leader, and it puts the most vulnerable students at greatest risk.
The only responsible option is for school leaders to adopt the nonnegotiable rule that all students receive proper safety instruction and participate in safety drills. This would cut short the specious justifications for excluding students with disabilities, and it would focus educators’ attention where it belongs: on trying to figure out how to create school culture that is inclusive for all students.
If a safety drill reveals that better systems and procedures are needed to help students with disabilities, then school leaders should look to best practices from the field.
As I heard one parent beg of teachers, “At least afford my child the opportunity to disappoint you before you make your decisions about what he can and cannot do.” And if a safety drill reveals that better systems and procedures are needed to help students with disabilities, then school leaders should look to best practices from the field. For example, an IEP team might design a plan to teach students about situational awareness, avoiding hazards, responding to alarms and lockdowns, and reporting threats. Or it might propose as an objective that the student demonstrates steps of a lockdown drill in three locations in the school. Or it might recommend a buddy system, identifying students who can help each other during drills.
Educators may not know how to ensure the safety of students with disabilities, or how to include them in active shooter scenarios and evacuation drills. But the answer isn’t to exclude them. All students deserve to be safe at school.
Hsu, T. (2018, March 4). Threat of shootings turns school security into a growth industry. The New York Times.
Sibley, J. (2019, March 29). The perilous practice of exempting students from safety drills. The Safety Doc Podcast.