New Jersey has yet to ensure the safety of students with disabilities during school emergencies, advocates say. They’re hoping that may change in the coming weeks.
A school security bill that calls for “more thoughtful emergency planning” to protect students with physical, intellectual and developmental disabilities has languished in the state Legislature, said Laura Console, director of public policy at Autism New Jersey.
The measure was introduced in the spring. Groups like Console’s and the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities are awaiting the Legislature’s lame-duck session, which starts Monday, to see if legislators will take action.
Left behind in school evacuations
Stories of kids left at the top of staircases or told to hide on their own − combined with a series of high-profile mass shootings in the U.S. − have prompted calls for more detailed security plans. In May, The Record and NorthJersey.com published accounts from parents and former students around the state of local schools that lacked the proper equipment and training to evacuate kids with disabilities.
There are 241,000 K-12 students with disabilities in New Jersey. Their needs must be better addressed, said Brenda Considine, a researcher for the state Council on Developmental Disabilities.
Legislation waiting for a vote
The proposed legislation, S2057, was sponsored by Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). It passed the state Senate by a 36-0 vote in June. But a companion bill, A1174, has yet to receive a vote in the Assembly. Efforts to reach Turner and chief Assembly sponsor Mila Jasey, a Maplewood Democrat, were unsuccessful this week.
New Jersey schools have been required to have security plans and hold drills on a regular basis since 2011. State guidelines for such initiatives lay out 91 specific elements schools must address, but they mention disability only once, vaguely requiring that staff “assist the special needs population.”
“Current state law and regulation does not explicitly require school districts or nonpublic schools to discuss, document, and plan for the unique needs of students with disabilities during fire or school security drills and actual emergency situations,” Turner’s bill notes.
“At the end of the day, all of this should have already been happening. Quite frankly, it would probably be discriminatory otherwise,” Console said. “But it’s always helpful to spell things out very explicitly because I think in fairness to districts, they do get overwhelmed.”
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Here’s what the bill requires
- If passed, S2057 would require “that all students will fully participate in each fire or school security drill conducted by a school district or nonpublic school.”
- Staff shall be trained and school security informed of the needs of students with disabilities so they are prepared to help them during drills and emergencies.
- General information about the needs of such students should be included in drill guides and training materials.
- Written plans should be developed for students who have specific needs.
- Individualized plans for students with disabilities should be documented in and updated along with student education plans.
- In developing safety and security plans, a school district must demonstrate that it “has considered and will incorporate the individual needs of each student with a disability into the districtwide school safety and security plan.”
Gene Myers covers disability and mental health for NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY Network. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @myersgene