A lack of evacuation planning in K12 schools  can result in severe underpreparedness for emergency events particularly for safely evacuating students with disabilities Photo courtesy of ThinkStock.

A lack of evacuation planning in K-12 schools can result in severe under-preparedness for emergency events, particularly for safely evacuating students with disabilities.

Safety for All

Comparing accessibility gaps in K-12 and higher education facilities.

Deficiencies in accessibility options for students with mobile disabilities can render those students unable to fully navigate a school campus. Beyond the day-to-day inconveniences of not being able to get to a building or classroom, a lack of accessibility is extremely dangerous in the event of an emergency evacuation.

When a school does not update its evacuation plans or provide the proper means for students with mobile disabilities to access every feature of its campus, it personally affects those students in negative and even dangerous ways. Students who are unable to descend stairwells may be left without an evacuation route in a burning building or find themselves in many other life-threatening situations. The personal goal of all school faculty and emergency planning personnel should not be to simply check items off of a list for regulatory reasons, but to provide safety for those individuals with mobile disabilities who are attending the school. 

One such individual who has been affected by this lack of accessibility is Lilly Grossman, an honors student from San Diego who uses a wheelchair due to a rare genome mutation that went undiagnosed for most of her life. Lilly spearheaded and facilitated a sustainable school evacuation plan at her high school after learning about the administration’s lack of safety measures for students with disabilities. Her plan was based on the use of evacuation sleds as a way to evacuate all students from the second floor during an emergency. Following the implementation of Lilly’s new accessibility plan, students and staff are required to take training classes on the use of the sleds to ensure their effectiveness. Lilly’s proactive efforts changed the administration’s views on accessibility for all students and earned her the Girl Scout Gold Award for implementing this project. 

School administrators need to prioritize accessibility for all individuals in K-12 and higher educational facilities, each of which has its own unique challenges when it comes to accessibility. 

Accessibility Challenges in K-12 Schools

K-12 environments pose unique challenges to school districts attempting to create safe and accessible settings for students. This is primarily because of federal regulations such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which ensures that all students with disabilities are provided with a free public education that meets their unique individual needs. From the perspective of a public elementary school, middle school or high school, fulfilling this obligation requires thorough administrative oversight and detailed planning. 

One facet of the plan Lilly Grossman implemented to improve evacuation options for disabled students at her school involved the use of evacuation sleds in stairwells. Photo courtesy of ARC Products.

An important part of IDEA is the Individualized Education Program, or IEP, which is guaranteed to any student with an eligible disability according to state and federal standards. An IEP is developed by an assigned team to specifically meet the needs of an individual student. IEPs are recognized by the federal government and are therefore transferrable between all states. For example, when Lilly Grossman and her family moved to California from Ohio, her new elementary school needed to comply with her IEP. The faculty of her school in California had to be prepared in advance to meet her needs or could have utilized government funding to accommodate those needs. 

While IDEA does guarantee access to a free public education for students with disabilities, it does not include any provisions for safely evacuating those students. Furthermore, many school administrators do not submit updated safety plans each year despite being required to do so. This lack of evacuation planning in K-12 schools leads to severe under-preparedness for emergency events, particularly for safely evacuating students with disabilities.

Accessibility Challenges for Higher Education

While IDEA is the main legislation used to ensure accessibility for K-12 students with disabilities, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the accessibility standard that college and university students rely on to receive the required accommodations to complete their education. Any educational facility that accepts federal funding must meet ADA requirements, but the ADA is not as uniform in higher education as IDEA is in K-12 because colleges and universities do not have to accommodate IEPs for students with disabilities. The “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE) guaranteed by IDEA for K-12 students does not extend to colleges and universities, so the pressure to comply with K-12 accessibility standards is simply not there in higher education. 

This distinction between K-12 and higher educational accessibility standards has caused colleges and universities to vary widely in their level of compliance with the ADA. While some schools pay ardent attention to the individual needs of each student, some may simply check items off a list to be able to legally claim that they comply with the ADA. The former scenario is obviously preferable for those with disabilities, but unfortunately is not always the case. 

The key challenge for higher educational facilities is to meet the needs of all students—both mobile and immobile—while also complying with ADA regulations. These two should go hand-in-hand, but there are certain situations where one may not lead to the other. For example, if a student with a disability is placed in a room at the far end of a dormitory hallway, there is no rule stating that the door closest to their room must be handicapped-accessible. With no access to the outside from an exit door close to their room, the student would not be able to quickly evacuate during an emergency. Despite this fact, the school would still be complying with the ADA even if just the front door of the building was handicapped-accessible. This is a perfect illustration of the checklist mentality that many higher educational facilities employ when thinking about ADA compliance.

With any educational facility, regardless of the age of the student population, the primary concern should be the safety of each student. All schools face the challenge of providing safe, accessible and efficient evacuations during emergency situations in order to fully guarantee that students are properly cared for. Safety, accessibility and thorough evacuation planning are the standards to which all educational facilities must be held.

Emergency Preparedness and Accessibility Challenges

The first step in creating more accessible environments for students with disabilities is addressing the fact that there are no federal or state regulations requiring schools to create thorough evacuation and safety plans. Without an effective evacuation plan that incorporates all students, including those with disabilities, no school is truly “accessible” no matter how many ramps and hand rails are installed. A school could fully comply with IDEA and/or the ADA and still not have a method for evacuating a student with a disability from the second floor during a fire or other natural disaster. At that point, every other precaution taken to make the school accessible for that student becomes irrelevant. This is the problem that Lilly Grossman recognized at her high school, and a change to their policies only came about through her determined effort to create a safer environment for herself and others. Legislation must address evacuation plans in order for all schools to become similarly accessible for students with disabilities. 

Beyond evacuation and safety planning, schools must also take special care to stock the correct equipment to support their safety plans as well as implementing proper training for staff and students so that the plans and equipment can be effectively put into action during an emergency. This was another key element in Lilly Grossman’s sustainable evacuation plan for her high school. The most thorough plan without the equipment and trained staff members to back it up is essentially useless. 

In addition to planning and equipment, school faculty and district safety personnel need to proactively accommodate student needs in terms of accessibility. Federal funding is available through IDEA to provide for the unique needs listed on a student’s IEP in a K-12 setting, so why not utilize that opportunity to create a more accessible environment for that student as well as their peers? A recent example of this is when Grossman, who had a very demanding IEP, began attending an elementary school in California. Rather than modifying what they already had on campus, the school’s principal took the opportunity to install ramps, lower water fountains for easier access and purchase accessible cafeteria tables for the students. While this change was made possible by funding from the IEP of one student, it ended up benefitting current and future students. 

In higher education, admissions officers should take special care to make sure that every need of a student with a disability is met rather than just reassuring the student and their family that the school complies with ADA protocols. Carefully considering the logistics of evacuating each individual student with a disability will ensure that no one gets left behind in the event of an emergency.

Pandolfo is President of ARC Products LLC, the manufacturer of the Med Sled.

Grossman is a published author and honors student who is a passionate advocate for genome sequencing as well as universal accessibility standards for individuals with disabilities. She can be reached at [email protected].

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