Courtney*, a student with cerebral palsy, had a bad experience during a recent active shooting drill.

Her class was instructed to lock and barricade the door, and then hide in a closet attached to the classroom. “I use a [wheel]chair to get around. We couldn’t fit my chair in the closet, so [another student] grabbed me and dragged me in the closet. I sprained my ankle and had a lot of pain.”

The drill used in Courtney’s school is the “shelter-in-place” or “lockdown” strategy that many schools employ. It proved to be very ineffective in Courtney’s situation.

Not only was the “shelter” they used too small to accommodate her and her wheelchair, but the teacher and students in her class had no training on how to help her and other students with disabilities in the case of a crisis.

“My friends [with disabilities] had a hard time [during the drill] too,” Courtney told Healthline. “It was fake, but it was so scary.”

Active shooter plans that are based on lockdown strategies have proven to be ineffective when it comes to students with disabilities like Courtney and her friends.

Not only do lockdowns involve locking classroom doors and hiding, but they also require students to be silent. That can be very difficult for students who don’t understand what’s happening — like children with autism, for example.

Students and teachers with disabilities feel forgotten

Failing to consider people with disabilities in planning for attacks not only affects students, but teachers, too. Many selfless teachers with disabilities worry that they’ll impact their able-bodied students’ safety.

Take Marissa Schimmoeller, a teacher in Delphos, Ohio. Students at Delphos Jefferson High School told their teacher they’d carry her in the event of an active shooter.

Schimmoeller has cerebral palsy and is a wheelchair user. She wrote a Facebook post about the experience and it quickly went viral.

While her students’ sentiment of wanting to protect their teacher is noble, the need for a better system for active shooters that includes students and teachers with disabilities is evident. Students shouldn’t have to be responsible for keeping their teacher alive.

“My school district doesn’t have a plan for our disabled students [for active shooter drills],” Cathy*, a special education teacher from Indiana told Healthline.

“[My students] have unique needs the average student doesn’t have. It feels like I’m the only one here that thinks about [that].”

Cathy, who also has a disability, has been advocating for her students since she started teaching a few years ago. “[My students] have unique needs the average student doesn’t have. It feels like I’m the only one here that thinks about [that].”

While Cathy’s school has been lucky so far and hasn’t had to deal with any major acts of violence while she’s worked there, she has concerns about what would happen if there was a gunman.

“I have autistic students that might be unable to follow directions, a deaf student unable to hear directions, and students with mobility issues. The drills we do are difficult enough for them. [I worry about] what would happen if it wasn’t just a drill,” she says.

Schools need individualized plans to consider their unique student body

Cathy’s fears are valid. We’re not even halfway through 2018, and CNN reports that there’s been an average of more than one school shooting a week so far.

Students with disabilities make up a significant number of students, hovering around 14 percent of all students currently enrolled in U.S public schools. This statistic includes a variety of disabilities, including autism, chronic illnesses, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, physical disabilities, and more.

“The U.S. continues to have a problem with disability,” Cathy says. “It bleeds over into everything. [Now] it bleeds over into [active shooter] drills and school shootings. We need to fix it. We need people to care.”

In “Supporting Students with Disabilities During Crises: A Teacher’s Guide,” the authors state that “few plans address the complex needs of students with disabilities.” The United States “[lacks any kind of] national model for school-based crisis preparedness,” leaving it up to individual school districts, which often have poor plans or no plans at all.

The districts that do have plans “often call for students to move quickly, assume unique positions, and/or hide and be silent,” they write.

The authors of this guide find this problematic because students with disabilities often can’t comply with these instructions. Instead, they recommend school districts “focus on individual needs [of their students]” and plan according to a student’s strengths and weaknesses rather than using a one-size-fits-all plan.

Irwin Redlener, MD, the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, agrees. “The standard recommendation now is more or less ‘run, hide, fight’” he says to The Mighty. “Depending on the person with a disability, it may be very difficult to do any of those steps, and under those circumstances, the school, in advance, needs to think about the needs of people in the school.”

Similar to an individual education plan (IEP) — an individualized document created to ensure students with disabilities succeed in school — Clarke and Embury created the individual emergency or lockdown plan (IELP) when they noticed IEPs lacked information about what to do in the case of an active shooter.

The IELP would include everything a student with a disability would need to stay safe during a drill or crisis, including how often they may need to practice drills, access to their medication, and other accommodations.

Disability activists will keep fighting for ADA protections

The U.S. Department of Education contracts the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center (REMS) to teach many school districts across the nation how to prepare for emergency situations including school shootings.

The problem is that, while they tell schools to meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), stating that they must “be aware of disability-related accessibility concerns,” they provide very few “concrete recommendations for schools to follow,” The Mighty writes. However, Chapter 7 Addendum 2 of the ADA states that “emergency sheltering programs must not exclude or deny benefits to people with disabilities.”

School districts’ lack of planning for students with disabilities is another in a long line of ADA violations that need improvement.

“The U.S. continues to have a problem with disability,” Cathy says. “It bleeds over into everything. [Now] it bleeds over into [active shooter] drills and school shootings. We need to fix it. We need people to care.”

Courtney says she often is kept up at night thinking about would happen to her if a shooting were to happen at her school. She thinks that she’d probably die. Why? “They don’t think about us,” she says, referring her town’s Board of Education.

Still, Courtney hopes to be a disability rights lawyer and is excited to see that people are finally talking about what happens to students with disabilities during active shooter drills and school shootings. “That part give me the most hope.”

*names have been changed to protect identity


Kelley O’Brien is a chronically ill and disabled lesbian freelance writer living in Ohio with her partner. In the past, she has written for Self, Bustle, INTO, Rodale’s Organic Lifestyle, and more. Find Kelley on Twitter or at her website.