How can NJ’s schools keep students with disabilities safe during an emergency?
Training helps keep kids safe. But, when it comes to protecting disabled students, NJ teachers require a different skill set.
Before I get onto this month’s topic, I want to share a little good news and some backstory to this journey I've been on.
Lens15 Media Launches
I moved back to New Jersey just over a year ago after freelancing for 15-years in South Korea. I wanted to start a new reporting beat that looks at the news through the lens of disability- a throughline that’s informed by my own experience having a low vision impairment. I’d examine how concerns like climate change, food security, technology and just about any other issue impact this community, which accounts for 15% of the global population. And that’s how Lens15 Media was born. I received a lot of help along the way, including from CUNY’s Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program and the Center for Cooperative Media. And this past spring, my company was awarded a grant from the NJ Civic Information Consortium and NJ Health Initiatives to launch New Jersey’s (and the country’s) first disability news agency. And now, Lens15 Media is ready for its close-up.
Watch the promo video.
And here’s another on what we do.
Check it all out at www.lens15.com
I’ve spent the past few months preparing for this launch. Lens15 is getting support through a collaboration with Montclair State University, my alma mater and where I teach a course on disability representation in media. My company’s forthcoming social media accounts will be managed by students at Hawk Communications and senior Keeley Giblin is Lens15’s first intern. We’re ready to enter production mode.
Now the hard part begins.
Lens15 wants to make accessible, multimedia journalism for and about people with disabilities more available throughout NJ’s local news ecosystem. In this next phase we’ll be building partnerships with other independent platforms to distribute content and advise on how reporters can identify the disability angle in any story.
Are NJ’s schools prepared to protect students with disabilities?
I didn’t grow up in a time when shelter in place or active shooter drills were part of the primary school experience. It’s troubling that this is now reality for students in New Jersey and across the country. And following the massacre of children in Uvalde, Texas and the dozens of other school shootings that occur every year in the US, this kind of violence was on my mind as students returned to the classroom earlier this month.
I wrote about how some NJ teachers don’t feel they’ve been given enough training on how to keep students with disabilities safe during a school emergency for my recent Lens Into NJ column in TAPinto.
Here’s a snippet.
A teacher at a Bergen County K-8 school says for some students with a learning difference, silently sheltering in place is unlikely.
“What do you do in this situation where you have a student who cannot be quiet”, asked the educator, who requested anonymity.
For this edition of the newsletter, I reached out to Jennifer Cook, who was, until recently, the principal at a NJ public school entirely for students with various kinds of physical, sensory and learning differences. I thought she might have some advice for educators at mainstream schools on how to ensure that all students can participate and be protected during drills as well as real emergencies.
You can read the edited transcript of that interview below or listen to it via the embedded audio player.
Tell me a little bit more about that school. How many students did you have roughly? And what were the kinds of disabilities they had?
We had about 50 students, it was ages three to 21. So I have a preschool disabled class, and there are children on the autism spectrum. There are children that have developmental delays and disorders along with visual impairments, emotional regulation impairments. We have students that were somewhere on the ADHD spectrum, students that had rare genetic disorders, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome. We really had every disability there.
What is an emergency drill like at a school like that? When there's a fire drill, how does that work?
We prep and we teach that stuff all the time. We have to review that every couple of weeks with our kids. The law requires us to do one fire drill and one security drill a month. We did multiple. We also did medical response emergency drills. Because of the population that we have, we have students that maybe were having seizures. So we had to practice all of those things a little bit more than a typical school. We have everything also in pictures for our kids, because a lot of them used a picture exchange system. A fire drill sign, it's not just the text saying what the directions are. It's in our bathrooms, on the back of the classroom doors, we have stuff that went home with parents and parents practice it at home with them. And it's all done in pictures, and in language that our students understand. And then we practiced often.
You can drill and practice all you like, but when an actual emergency happens, sometimes the rules of the game are changed. Can you recall a time where you had a real emergency and you maybe had to improvise as things played out?
I had a a van with three of my children who are nonverbal autism, get into a car accident, and nobody could speak to them. And someone called the school and I drove over to the accident to help them use their communication device to help them translate what the kids were saying,
What kind of communication device are you talking about?
All three of them had an iPad with Proloquo2Go. It's basically an app that enables them to talk. It goes through a series, like each page has tiles on it. So there's a homepage, and it might have emotion, feelings, school, chat. So you would have to know to hit the chat button or say to him, "does anywhere hurt on your body?" You might hit body parts, and then say to him, "what hurts? Does anything hurt? Can you touch the picture of what hurts?" And then he was able to hit my head, my back.
A first responder who has never heard about this would have absolutely no clue.
Right. No idea.
Do you think the procedures that were in place at a school like your former school, a school entirely for students with disabilities, can be applied to a mainstream school?
It really is about the training piece. It really is about coming up with a comprehensive plan for those children and those students. Coming up with a better training program for teachers, maybe engaging a little bit more with those first responders. So if I'm a typical school, like my current school, we have are typically developing general education classrooms. And then we have quite a few autism programs within our building. I have a fourth grade classroom, but I have some children that are on the spectrum. So I know I have a particular student that I know he doesn't like the noise. Having noise cancelling headphones readily available by the door is important for me to know and it's important for the administration to be making sure that they are providing teachers with that training and with the appropriate supplies.
What are some other pro tips you can offer to teachers in general public schools on how to safely evacuate students with different types of disabilities?
Having a plan for a really loud class for an active shooter drill is important. Our emergency bags always had like a package of Oreo cookies or goldfish, that was our safe go to snack for kids. But a lot of them, just sitting there and telling them, "Oh, you have to be quiet. You have to be quiet. You have to be quiet." That's not going to work, just telling them to be quiet. They don't have the comprehension to understand why we're all being quiet right now. And that maybe there's an active shooter in the building. Therefore, our backup plan was everybody's going to have an Oreo cookie at this time, we're all going to sit along the wall and we're going to have an Oreo cookie. And that's what kind of kept them quiet and understanding of what was going on.
How did you come up with instead of trying to keep kids quiet during an emergency that you gave them cookies?
A lot of them have ABA programming, applied behavioral analysis, a lot of them were working for edibles. And we talked about that in meetings too, that the teachers, the administration, like, okay, well, I now have a classroom. Let's say there is an active shooter looking for a classroom that has people in it. Obviously, if you walk by some of our classrooms, kids might be making noise, they might be screaming, they might be just whatever their sound is. So we had talked about alright, well, the quietest time typically is when they're eating or when they're getting their edible as their reward. So we built that into our emergency plan that was very specific for those few classrooms. Telling them to sit on the floor along the wall, which is the safe haven wall or whatever. Having them sit along that wall for even just five minutes. It was a lot to try to keep them quiet. We found that if they had a snack at that time, we didn't have to keep saying "you have to be quiet. You have to be quiet." It just was safer for them.
I’d like to hear about your concerns on keeping students with disabilities safe during school emergencies or any personal experiences. Reach out: email@example.com
Note: Jennifer asked that I not reveal the names of her former or current employers because she was not speaking on behalf of these schools.
A curated list of recent news stories concerning disability in New Jersey.
Kessler Foundation researchers receive $400,000 in funding for autism research in New Jersey
Montclair group give special needs youth a place to hang out and make friends
Newark schools missed federal requirements for students with disabilities, state finds
Lattes, Chick-fil-A and opportunity: New Liquid Church café run by staff with disabilities
Club DREAMS provides oasis for children with Down syndrome to learn and grow
N.J. school abused child with Down syndrome, other disabilities, lawsuit says NJ.com
Disability community wants more from Trenton, commemorates COVID deaths
Keeley Gilblin helped compile links and edit this edition of the newsletter.