For years, Lori Scott has worked to get a plan in place so that her 14-year-old daughter Cassidy will be evacuated with her peers.
Cassidy requires a wheelchair to get around. The personalized evacuation plan for Cassidy is to wait with a school staff member in the upstairs stairwell until emergency services arrive. The Howard County Public School system has said this plan was approved by the county fire department and follows national standards, but as a parent it doesn't sit right with Lori.
“How can we make this better, more efficient and more safe?” she said.
Steven Hess is another parent in Howard County struggling with that same question. His daughter takes several advanced placement classes on the second floor throughout the school day.
“My daughter has muscular dystrophy, she's in a power wheelchair and the original concept was to evacuate her to a stairwell, any stairwell with a representative from the school but not to evacuate her completely from the structure,” said Hess.
On Tuesday, the Scott family and Hess were in Annapolis advocating for a bill that would create a task force to review statewide policies for evacuating people with disabilities from school buildings.
Right now, schools are required to have an evacuation plan for students with disabilities but there's no requirement that the plan include the kids be taken out of the school before first responders arrive.
“This task force will kind of be supervised and the oversight will be done by MSDE, Maryland State Department of Education, to look at what's happening currently, to do kind of a national best practice look to see what's happening with evacuation and emergency planning across the states, across this state, across the counties,” said Scott.
See also: Evacuating disabled students in Maryland
The current state guidelines were implemented in 2013, but as Susan Somerville-Hawes with The Arc Maryland points out, no one from the disability community was listed as a contributor on the report.
The new task force would be made up of 27 members and would include students, school officials, as well as disability and safety advocates.
“We really need to rewrite the regulations to include specific standards that the 24 local school systems can look to when they're doing their own individual plans and they're thinking about the students, the staff, and the visitors in their buildings who have disabilities and what they can do to accommodate them during an emergency,” said Somerville-Hawes, who is the director of public policy and advocacy for children and families.
She added that her organization has attempted to meet with the Maryland State Department of Education but was unable to.
“We’ve been trying to meet with the state department of education to sit around a table and get this hole filled in. We couldn’t get a meeting with them, so we figured let’s get a task force, let’s get the right people around the table including people with disabilities so that we can fix this so people can be safe in their schools,” said
Bill Reinhard, the executive director of communications with Maryland State Department of Education sent ABC2 this statement:
“Student safety is of paramount importance to the Maryland State Department of Education. We look forward to meeting with organizations and individuals interested in improving the safety of our students.”