In light of the recent school shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, disability advocates have voiced concerns over emergency procedures in schools across the country that do little to consider the needs of disabled students.
Although PCC’s emergency guidelines include considerations for students with mobility and sensory disabilities, questions remain as to whether more can be done to ensure the safety of disabled students during emergencies.
Much of the recent concern is linked to a standard emergency procedure called “shelter in place,” which was developed as an evacuation protocol to follow during natural disasters. With this procedure, students are told to remain in a specific part of their building until the danger has passed. They would then be evacuated by emergency personnel, such as police and firefighters who have the tools needed to provide greater assistance.
The problem arises when this procedure is used, mistakenly or as an excuse, to leave disabled students in the building while the rest of the students evacuate. This has occurred numerous times around the country.
“That’s actually happened to me before,” said Tiana Lee, a second-year student at PCC with a powered wheelchair. “When I was a kid, there was a fire drill and everyone took off. At that point I didn’t have a [wheel]chair and the teacher completely forgot about me and just left. So, I was just stuck in the classroom for the whole fire drill; it was really scary.”
Alex Boekelheide, Executive Director of Strategic Communications and Marketing at PCC, explained that PCC’s evacuation procedure for students with disabilities differs based on the nature of the emergency, and that “shelter in place” is only used when there is a fire, earthquake or natural disaster.
“The theory [behind shelter in place] is that if you’re in a central core, the building is built more around you,” explained Boekelheide. “You’re safer in a stairwell as opposed to on the wings of a building where there may be a collapse or something may fall down … In a shooting situation, or a crisis like that, a mobility disabled student is going to have the same response that everyone’s supposed to have, which is basically: lock the door, hide, and if necessary, run or fight.”
The college recognizes that different emergencies require different responses, but emergency situations are hectic: what happens when the emergency unfolds quickly and the exact cause is unclear? What could PCC do to foster a community that is more prepared to aid its disabled students during a fast-moving crisis?
Currently, the Police and College Safety section of PCC’s website instructs rescue personnel to check exit corridors and stairwells for any stranded persons. It then states: “Please be ready to physically assist in the evacuation of disabled persons.” It is unclear whether this memo is targeted at the aforementioned rescue personnel or whether its audience includes students and faculty as well. If able-bodied students should take part in aiding disabled students during some types of emergency situations, what can be done to let more students know about how they can help?
“In an emergency, just being there for your fellow students with disabilities is really important,” said Autumn Elliott, Associate Managing Attorney at Disability Rights California. “Asking them, ‘How can I help?’ or ‘What do you need me to do?’ can go a long way in making sure they don’t get left behind.”
“Include all members of the community in planning efforts,” added Marcie Roth, Chief Executive Officer at the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies. “Particularly people with disabilities and those who are economically disadvantaged as they are the ones disproportionately impacted by incomplete and ineffective disaster planning”
“It’s really important to include people with disabilities in the emergency planning process,” agreed Elliott. “So that they can give their input on whether the plans will actually work. When individuals with disabilities participate in evacuation drills they can tell officials what works and what doesn’t. This will tell the school a lot about whether it has an adequate plan.”
Both officials seemed to agree on the importance of planning ahead, as well as being as inclusive as possible in the emergency planning process, so that the plans in place consider every potential issue.
Roth also added that her organization urges institutions not to just rely on “areas of rescue” within buildings where people with mobility disabilities wait to be evacuated. She pointed to the importance of having a plan that provides a way for those in need of rescue to communicate their needs and location during an evacuation.
One important step taken by PCC is the institution of “floor captains” across the campus. These staff members, as explained by Alex Boekelheide, have gone through training to be certified to respond in emergency situations.
“It’s their job, in the event of an emergency, to make sure rooms are clear,” stated Boekelheide. “They make sure that anybody with a disability is in the proper place, and then they are responsible for making sure that individual is taken care of and gets out.”
Floor captains also have access to the tools (such as folding chairs) and training to get people out of dangerous zones during emergencies.
Boekelheide also mentioned that disabled students on campus should raise any issues or concerns they might have about the current emergency procedures with Disabled Students Programs and Services (DSP&S) at PCC.
“[DSP&S] are clearly a resource for students who have concerns about this kind of thing,” he stated. “I think they’ll be able to serve either as a resource or an answering point, but also as a collection of concerns that can be brought up in a certain way. DSP&S staff interface with other areas on campus all the time to talk about accommodations that are needed or improvements that can be made.”
On the question of whether more students on campus should be informed about emergency procedures, Tiana Lee and her friend Kai Jack, a first-year student at PCC who uses DSP&S as a resource, agreed that something needed to be done.
“There should be some sort of mass event on PCC,” stated Jack. “Something to let everyone know how to stay safe and make sure that no one gets left behind.”
“I definitely think that other students should know about it,” added Lee. “So that if they ever do see a disabled person in a building during an emergency, they’ll know to stop and ask if the person needs help. I think that if students were informed about how they could help, they would definitely be more willing to.”