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Schools Must Plan Better to Protect Disabled Students During Active Shooter Emergencies

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We wrote this letter regarding our daughter, who has a disability, in the wake of the May 25, 2018 Noblesville, Indiana School shooting. We hope this can help other families.

To everyone:

Our disabled daughter was barricaded in a portable classroom with another disabled child without an adult during the second lockdown on May 25 of last year. While we are aware the portable classrooms are no longer in use for students in Noblesville, we believe it’s still possible for students to be unsupervised during an event, whether it is a drill or an actual emergency.

The situation for our daughter was clearly unparalleled in our experiences (and for most people). She was trapped outside during a red alert, she was not with an adult, and she had to think on her feet. The greatest comfort is knowing that two children with disabilities were able to implement and sequence the alert, lockdown, inform, counter (fight or distract), evacuate (escape) (ALICE) protocols with great success. They did everything right because they had been trained correctly. Fortunately, they were able to get the other child’s cell phone from his backpack to alert their parents of the situation. If they had been locked alone in a classroom, would they have known how to call anyone on a classroom phone?

During the second lockdown, communication was severed from the school system as SWAT and the police were now in charge. Because there was no formal communication, there was no assessment given to anyone on the threat to the high school and surrounding elementary and middle schools.

This is what happened that day:

During the first lockdown, our daughter was in a special education social group. When the group was finished, and the first lockdown lifted, she and another student were sent to the portable classroom without an accompanying adult. During that time, the second red alert occurred and they were locked out of the school because they had exited the school to get to the portable classroom. The intercom told them there was a Code Red Lockdown and that this was not a drill. Imagine the sheer terror of knowing there was an active shooter and the two of you were locked out of the building. Now imagine you’re both 10 years old and have disabilities.

The two children went into the portable, closed the door and tried to lock it. The door did not lock. They barricaded themselves in the portable, putting stacked chairs and desks in front of the door. They hid under the teacher’s desk. The other child went to get his phone out of his backpack so they could call 911. They got scissors and two staplers to throw at the shooter. But the phone was dead and they had to charge it before they could call for help.

Then they went silent.

When the phone charged, they didn’t call 911, but instead my daughter called me and the other child called his dad. I rarely answer phone calls from unknown numbers. But on that day for some reason I answered the phone. It was our daughter on someone else’s phone.

Our daughter was terrified, begging me to come to school to get her, saying she was afraid she was going to die, “Mommy, mommy! I am going to die! Please come get me!”

Imagine your 10-year-old child’s voice telling you she’s going to die.

I immediately called the school and told them there were two children in the portable without an adult! Hanging up the phone to get her help was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.

I tried to call the children back to let them know someone would be there, but there was no answer. In hindsight, I am horrified by my actions. By calling her back, I could have provided their location to an active shooter.

About 10 minutes later I received a call from her teacher (an amazing, compassionate human being) stating that my daughter and the other child were finally with her. Later I found out that a fifth grade teacher whose classroom was located near the portable was asked to leave her barricaded classroom to go to the portable to get the children. Ultimately, it was another staff member who got our children.

When our daughter got home, she said, “Mom, please let my teacher know that if there’s ever another shooting that I will be the only person dead. Because I don’t want my friends to get hurt, so I will just tell the shooter to kill me.”

It has been a very long process to help her overcome this trauma.

We want to let you know we are not angry with anyone, rather we believe it’s important to relay this information to you so that you can analyze the events and have appropriate policies and protocols put into place before an emergency occurs. We know that you cannot make any changes without information being provided to you, so we have shared our story here. It is our hope that you might consider some of our suggestions to improve safety in emergency situations.

We are forever grateful that our wonderful and instinctively proactive school resource officer (SRO) of the Noblesville Police Department insisted that the ALICE drills be implemented district-wide, a decision that proved invaluable in saving many lives. We are impressed that the Noblesville schools and the community responses have been recognized nationwide. We know this administration and community will be leading the way across this country.

We deeply appreciate the immediate counseling made available to parents, staff, first responders and children. Please let people know that it doesn’t matter whether your child was at Noblesville West Middle School, regardless of where they were, they most likely will need to process the events. Children and adults who barricaded during the second lockdown are equally traumatized.

When the person arrived to get the children out of the portable, there was no code word for these two children to trust the person coming in to get them. What do you think went through their minds when the door was forced open? Could there have been a way to rescue them without them believing the shooter was there to kill them? Could there have been a way to safely inform the children that help was coming? It should have been a police/SWAT officer or a known and/or recognizable adult.

All our daughter knows is that the person who came to get them had on a pink shirt, and she did not know this person. This is disconcerting because anyone (including a shooter) could have enticed these children out from hiding.

In evaluating this over this past year ,we are asking the school corporation to consider the following:

1. Students with disabilities should never be left alone in any classroom, and students with more serious disabilities need be located on the ground floor or in an impenetrable classroom.

2. Please consider putting a charged cell phone in every classroom in the event of reoccurrence and for emergencies — one that can be silent without bright light so texts and phone calls would not alert anyone to their location. Make sure every child knows how to access and use the device. Has your child memorized your cell phone number? Do they know how to actually dial the cell phone? Classroom phones don’t dial directly out and can be confusing for adults, let alone a young panicked child.

3. Put a solid doorstop in every room that has an inward opening door. That way if a door doesn’t lock, or for added security, the children can put the doorstop underneath the door. This could brace the door from being opened by an intruder. Some classrooms might have a rubber stopper that does little to keep the doors open against the weight of the door, let alone the might of an intruder.

4. Reassure the children that throwing iPads or other electronic devices is OK in these situations. Everything is acceptable to throw at an intruder and they will not be punished.

5. Every special education student needs to have a specific emergency plan put into their individualized education plan (IEP) and all of the teachers, substitutes and staff need to be made aware of this plan. Will our students and staff know what to do if they are in the halls, at lunch, out at recess or in the bathroom?

6. If it is necessary to go and get students out of a classroom where they are alone, it’s important to know who the students are in the room so the adult coming for them can call to them by name and let them know it’s safe to open the door.

7. Have at night every year at each building where concerned parents can come in and go through the various drills so they can help their child(ren) know what to do. Experiencing these drills ourselves will enable us to help our children and give us an opportunity to see where issues might arise so that we can properly address these issues before they happen. This is especially critical for parents of students with disabilities.

8. Thank you Noblesville Schools for eliminating the portable classrooms and recognizing they can be inherently dangerous for children. Please don’t ever use them again for classrooms.

It was a terrible, awful and tragic day. Our teachers, principals, support staff, children and our community was shaken to its foundation. The staff was asked to make life-saving choices not knowing if their own children were safe. Parents and guardians were traumatized by not being able to get to their own children, in some cases for hours.

We share this story because everybody was affected at every school whether you were at NWMS or in that classroom or not. The ripple effects will be felt for years.

Noblesville is a strong and compassionate community. We as a community, have the ability to lead this nation in doing what is right by all of our children.


Parent of a traumatized child in Noblesville

Here are some resources that address students with disabilities during active shooter emergencies:

Getty image by bmcent1

Originally published: June 24, 2019
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