NJ bill: School drills must include students with disabilities
Students with disabilities aren't getting enough attention during emergency drills in school, according to a proposed state law that's been moving along in Trenton.
Under legislation that has cleared the full New Jersey Senate, school districts would have to ensure that individuals with physical and developmental impairments — such as a child with autism or a kid in a wheelchair — are fully participating in the fire drills and school security drills that are supposed to be held monthly.
"Sometimes, inadvertently, in planning like this, the needs of students with disabilities are overlooked," said Suzanne Buchanan, executive director of Autism New Jersey.
The needs of students with disabilities in emergency situations can be incredibly complex, Buchanan said. In the event of a routine fire drill, for example, a child with autism may resist leaving an activity they're engaging with, and they may not understand the consequences of not going along with the emergency planning.
Beyond requiring full participation among the student body, the measure advancing through the New Jersey Legislature also states that the special accommodations needed for a student with disabilities would have to be noted in their individualized plans, such as an IEP or 504 plan.
"No child should be an afterthought, and parents of students with disabilities deserve the peace of mind that when faced with a school crisis situation, their children will be brought to safety and will never be left behind," said Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, a sponsor of the measure.
By law, schools in New Jersey must hold a fire drill and a security drill each month they're in session.
When these drills take place, according to Mercedes Witowsky, executive director of the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities, certain students may not be participating at all, or they're only taken to a location in the school that's been designated as the safest.
"In school emergencies, if everyone else is getting out, that student with a physical disability needs to get out as well," Witowsky said.
An Assembly version of the legislation was approved by a committee in March.