Different Circumstances for Addressing Special Needs Students in a Crisis

Educators that have to deal with this specific problem often ask about circumstances involving those with special needs in schools.  One of the often understood but overlooked components is that some of these kids do not react well to loud sounds and can resist instruction from strangers.  Schools have adopted to this by having the kids leave the school before drills (fire alarms) where the sounds can be overwhelming.  While agreement with this idea is common, it ignores the reality that in the event of a real incident the alarms and responding emergency services are loud and visually overwhelming to kids.  Schools need to prepare for the unknown reaction to a real event if these students are in the classroom when the alarm sounds or outside as vehicles respond.

Some considerations for staff working with kids that have mental challenges:

  1. Have emergency responders (SROs/deputies/paramedics) come to the classroom regularly (weekly or bi-weekly) so the children develop a modicum of comfort with people in uniform.
    1. The idea is that if they are only confronted with emergency responders in a negative environment the association of the presence of someone in uniform is detrimental.  Having more positive experiences compared to negative encounters is beneficial.
    2. Most agencies are happy to have officers/firefighters/paramedics swing by and say hello.  The visit doesn’t have to be more than a few minutes but is social in nature.  It should be treated as ordinary and not some special event so the kids continue to function in the presence of uniformed strangers.  Salutations and conversations are important but not required.
    3. This is a long term life lesson to develop as well since statistically these children will have a greater number of encounters with responders than the average citizen over their lifetime.
    4. If possible, different responders should come so emergency services personnel are introduced to a vulnerable member of the community.  Don’t just invite the same SRO every week or two.
  2. Have high visibility (orange or yellow) vests/sash for the kids to wear during all drills and in real life emergencies.
    1. Non compliant kids can quickly be identified by responders
    2. Failure to obey directions from responders will be met with understanding not force
    3. If the student wanders off or flees others in the community will recognize the sash and understand assistance might be needed.
    4. Responding vehicles make a lot of noise and the reaction is often unpredictable.  Other school support staff will be able to identify where this group has evacuated and come to assist.
  3. In the event of a hostile intruder, staff with students in this category may realize that the best way to keep everyone as safe as possible is to not evacuate and go straight to locking the classroom.
    1. In a hostile intruder situation the recommendation is to evacuate, barricade and protect yourself.  This is not a hard and fast rule as circumstances such as age, weather, mental faculty, obstacles and proximity to violence can alter the choices to stay safe.
    2. The ability to understand the situation and protect yourself is generally understood with kids over 4th Younger students make poor decisions and tend to scatter or not follow instructions.  Given these circumstances it can be better to secure in a classroom with only 1 teacher assisting several students.  The frequent visits by responders means emergency responders are already familiar with the location of the classroom and they understand the need for immediate assistance.

As a former law enforcement member with a family member that lives with extras challenges I understand the unique nature of working with this group.  I worked to bring the Crisis Intervention Training to our agency, worked at the state level to develop funding for programs that address these needs and acquired certifications as a trainer for mental health programs.

The hardest part for staff in these situations is to understand that personal safety is paramount.  You cannot risk becoming injured for the sake of one non-cooperative person if that means that others are put in jeopardy.  Attempting to keep a child from leaving a room or staying out of sight is important but not if it compromises your ability to protect others in the same room.

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