RICHMOND — The House of Delegates approved a measure Tuesday that mandates school divisions update emergency plans to include students with mobility impairments.
Del. Laura Jane Cohen, D-Fairfax, a former educator, introduced House Bill 501. She previously served on an advisory committee for students with disabilities as a school board member for Fairfax County Public Schools.
Cohen filed the measure in response to a parent’s testimony to the board that their first-grade child, who was in a wheelchair, would be left on the second floor with staff in the event of an emergency, or fire. Parents were “horrified” by that plan, she said.
“They felt like, you know, this was a really lousy idea,” Cohen said.
There was no specific state guidance on how to make an evacuation plan more inclusive as they worked within the locality to update the Fairfax school plan, Cohen said. The state’s most recent campus and school safety guide advises of needs and accommodations for mental, behavioral and physical disabilities, but does not provide specific guidance.
Just over 14% of students in K-12 schools have a form or multiple forms of disability, according to the state Department of Education.
Cohen wanted to create a framework for schools to make sure all kids can safely evacuate.
“I think this is probably one of the first bills that we wrote the minute that I won,” Cohen said.
Matthew Shapiro thinks the legislation is crucially important and was excited it was introduced. He is the founder and CEO of 6 Wheels Consulting, where he works with clients — including Dollywood theme park — to make spaces more inclusive.
Shapiro, a wheelchair user, remembers hiding in a school closet during emergency drills and did not feel there was an actual evacuation plan for him.
“I remember they’d say like, ‘OK Matthew, go in the closet, stay in there and do like your little hand over your head thing,’” Shapiro said. “But it’s like, that’s not gonna keep me safe.”
Shapiro also described prior instances where the call systems did not work in the area of refuge, a designated area for when evacuation is not possible. While a “clear and concise plan” is needed, so is practice and execution of the plan, he said.
“When rubber meets the road, are you gonna be able to execute it properly and is stuff not gonna hit the fan?” Shapiro said.
“There is some guidance around the use of elevators, there are sleds, there are different types of wheelchair-like devices that are able to get down stairs very easily and quickly,” Cohen said. “We’ve seen schools in other divisions that utilize chairlifts, we’ve also seen slides that come out from that second story window.”
School districts will pick up costs to implement any necessary provisions, according to the bill impact statement. Cohen’s plan is to work with school districts and the Virginia School Board Association to look at costs and to use available state and federal grants.
“I’m excited to hopefully dig in a little bit and make sure that school systems don’t … tense up and think that this is another unfunded mandate from Richmond,” Cohen said. “That’s not what it’s intended to be, but it is entitled to get our kids with mobility issues out safely.
The bill had unanimous support as it moved through the House. It now heads to the Senate.
“I was really pleased to see it get that,” Cohen said. “I struggle to understand a world where folks think that it’s OK to just leave kids in a room … in an emergency and not have them evacuate and not have them practice drills with their differently-abled peers.”
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.