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'I don't want to be left behind': Student wants shooting response plans for those with disabilities

Stock image of a student in a wheelchair in primary school
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This stock image shows a student in a wheelchair in primary school. High school student Anja Herrman's research study says students with disabilities don't get enough consideration in schools' active shooter emergency response plans.

Anja Herrman knows what to do if a natural disaster like a flood or tornado strikes when she's in school — move to a predesignated room and stay there until first responders carry her to safety.

But if an armed gunman was in the building? That crisis plan is murkier.

"One of my scariest fears is being left behind in an active shooter situation and just being a sitting duck," said the 16-year-old, who has a movement disability and uses a wheelchair.

Last May, a student at Herrman's school, Oak Park River Forest High in Illinois, was arrested for allegedly trying to enter the building with a loaded gun.

Those plans were averted when police were tipped off.

Herrman, who said she was in the school cafeteria at the time, wonders what would have happened if the student did get inside with the intent of hurting people.

"You see videos on Twitter that students shoot on their cellphones, and they jump out of windows," she said. "I can't jump out of a window. Like, what do I do, just die?"

Children in the United States as young as kindergartners regularly practice active shooter drills at school.

It's been a common occurrence in the United States since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in which 12 students and a teacher were killed and more than 20 others were wounded by two armed 12th graders.

The current recommendations from the Department of Homeland Security encourage people to flee an active shooter if possible, to remain in place if it's not possible to escape, and as a last resort, try to incapacitate the shooter.

But students with disabilities could be at even greater risk than their peers. That's because they might not be able to easily comply with emergency procedures to move quickly, assume a certain position, or stay silent.

In addition to mobility challenges, some students may be overwhelmed by alarms and urgent orders to stop what they're doing and assume a protective stance.

The problem, according to Herrman, is that many school crisis plans don't consider the needs of students with physical, intellectual, and emotional differences.

"I don't want to be left behind, and I don't want people like me to be left behind," Herrman said. "We need to be taken into account and I want to make sure that happens."

Herrman researched the issue as part of a leadership project with the Disabilty EmpowHER Network, a mentoring organization founded in Rochester for girls and young women with disabilities.

For her study, Herrman used online surveys to question 247 educators and school administrators across the U.S. and 397 students who identified as disabled.

Nearly 70% of the students said their individual education plan (IEP) or 504 special education plan either did not include specific plans for their safety in the case of an active shooter situation or were unaware if it did.

Among students who said they practiced active shooter drills in school, about 20% said the drills were "not inclusive" or "less inclusive" of their disability needs. Almost 40% were neutral on the measure of inclusivity.

"Overwhelmingly, a lot of the teachers we surveyed — even in their general school lockdown plans — stated that there was little to no language about what to do with students with disabilities even in the general plan," Herrman added. "That doesn't even get into, is there a specific plan?"

Even special education teachers who participated in the survey did not feel prepared to support their students in the event of an active shooter scenario.

"Not all students with disabilities are in special education. I, for example, am not," Herrman said. "But that's even more chilling. You'd think they would be more prepared given their training on how to work with students."

One kindergarten teacher at a private school in Pennsylvania who responded to the survey said, "I do not at all feel prepared for school shootings. I try my best to take proactive measures, but I do not feel as if the administration has spent enough time training us."

She said her neurodivergent students and those with other disabilities are more likely to be anxious and panic when asked to shelter in place.

"The (active shooter) policies require that the children —who are already kindergartners in the first place — must act completely neurotypical and perfectly behaved," the teacher continued. "This expectation does not serve disabled kids now, and would not serve them in the future either.”

Teachers in private and public schools generally expressed confidence in their ability to keep their students safe in a fire or natural disaster in contrast to a shooting.

A 12th-grade teacher in New York echoed the feelings of other educators.

“Despite the countless number of drills we have for shootings," he said, "I do not feel prepared for a real shooting because I worry I will not be able to control the panic of my students. With panic, students with physical disabilities are at a disadvantage.”

Herrman's leadership project includes a visit to Washington, D.C., next week. She expects to present her research findings to the staff of her local representative, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

Herrman will ask the senator to work with her on a policy mandating public school districts to create specific school shooting response plans for students with disabilities. She also wants the U.S. Department of Education to fund more research on the issue.

"My data is some of the first that we've found, which is a problem," she said. "One study that I did cannot be the end of it."

Herrman said she wants to turn her frustration over the lack of attention to emergency planning for students with disabilities into action.

"With my research and my lobbying, I'm trying to use my voice to create a change for not only me," she said, "but for the generation of disabled students that come after me."

This story is reported from WXXI's Inclusion Desk.

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.