In this interview, the MoCo Student Politics editor Max Moss spoke with AJ Campbell, a MCPS parent who recently voiced her concerns about treatment of disabled students in emergency situations.
Q: How did you get involved in advocacy for the rights of the disabled?
A: My daughter is a disabled MCPS elementary school student. I have had to negotiate the murky, muddled, often turbulent waters of MCPS 7 years, but this was my first time I had to engage MCPS on a question of a mobility disability. My daughter had planned to undergo foot surgery a month ago. She would be on crutches for about 6 weeks. Her elementary school has no ramps at all, and lots of staircases. Her classes are all on the third floor with 4 staircases separating her from ground level. There is an elevator but it is not for students and could not be used without a staff member. The elevator would not be used in the event of an evacuation. How would my daughter get out of the school building if she could not get down the stairs? MCPS would leave her inside and wait for firefighters to come and get her down the stairs. MCPS has to change their policy and provide Evacuation Chairs. The chair is a lightweight special wheel chair that only costs about $1400, close in price to an AED. The chairs could be placed in stairwells and moved around with students with temporary or permanent disabilities. At no point in the process of talking to the school and MCPS did any staffer offer the use of the Evacuation Chair.
Q: Can you explain exactly what MCPS currently states regarding the evacuation of disabled kids in an emergency and why this is a problem?
A: I asked the school to come up with a plan for her evacuation and getting around the school. It was chilling when the Vice Principal wrote back to me and said:
“… There are set guidelines for where students and staff should be during emergencies, this includes drills. In the event anyone is unable to negotiate stairs (due to a sudden injury or a planned medical procedure) this person must go to one of the Areas of Refuge. This is the designated room I mentioned in the previous email, where emergency personnel know to go if there is anyone who couldn’t make it out of the building. Students and staff are not to be carried outside and risk further injury. …”
Orinda Nelson, Vice Principal, Piney Branch Elementary School
Via email, April 21, 2015
I was in disbelief. I could not understand why MCPS would leave a disabled child trapped in a building that every other able-bodied student could leave. It was like they were treating disabled students differently.
I contacted the MCPS Department of School Safety and Security’s Douglas Steele, who told me the same thing:
“Be re-assured that… [my daughter] would never be left alone during an emergency. The identified safe rooms at schools are locations where it would be safe to stage in the very rare case when transporting a child or staff member is not feasible in a real emergency…”
Douglas Steel, Department of School Safety and Security
Via email, April 22, 2015
I finally got a hold of the MCPS policy document (EBA-RA), which said clearly:
“Up and down movement of disabled persons in stairwells should never be attempted by untrained personnel. Should their removal from the building be required, trained fire fighters [sic] or rescue squad personnel will perform this task when they arrive at the school. Only under life threatening conditions should individuals attempt to remove disabled persons down a flight of stairs.”
The policy was clear that MCPS did not want students to be helped out of the building.
I also had to question how would someone know if it was life threating or not? If my daughter is headed off to a stairwell or ‘Area of Refuge/Rescue’ how would anyone be able to get her out if it was life threatening?
What was clear to me was that it was a case of different treatment of disabled students.
Q: What is being done right now to help fix this problem? Is there any political support for a change in this policy?
A: A similar problem has come up in the New Rochelle School District. For years, the parent of a student begged for an evacuation chair for his daughter. The school district declined to provide the chairs. There was a school evacuation. The daughter was left inside the building. The Department of Justice found that the school district was guilty of violating the student’s rights. The parents are suing for $26 million dollars, and they will win.
The more I talk and write about this, the more people feel that this is something that needs to be changed.
Q: What other rights do you see denied to disabled students under current MCPS policies and regulations? What issues does the public need to become aware of?
A: In my experience and that of many other parents, MCPS has a consistently bad reputation dealing with disabled students. MCPS has the highest complaint rate of any other county in Maryland. Several high profile court cases and settlements prompted the MoCo school board to hire WestEd for $150,000 to evaluate the way MCPS and parents of disabled kids resolve conflict. MCPS spends over $200,000 a year just in outside council fighting parents. It is ultimately an unsustainable system. MCPS needs to rethink how it deals with disabled students.
Q: Additional Comments?
A: What if there was a disaster at school and you were hurt and could not get down the stairs? What would you do? Could your friends or teacher get you out? This is your chance to help your fellow students. Your voice will make a difference. Be heard. Tweet at the school board and MCPS. Tell them that you want #MCPS to #EvacAllStudents.