Mother outraged by school evacuation plan for disabled student

ELLICOTT CITY, Md. - A mother has started a movement to get her disabled child a new evacuation plan. The one provided by the school states that in the event of an emergency, 14-year-old Cassidy Scott is to be brought to an upstairs stairwell where she would wait for first responders.

The Howard County Public School System says it worked with the fire marshal's office and that this plan meets national standards, but no matter how safe it may be deemed it's not what Lori Scott, Cassidy's mother, wants to happen if there's ever a real emergency.

“That is frightening. Very scary, and I can't imagine that anybody would even think that's a good option,” Scott said.

See also: Evacuating disabled students in Maryland

Cassidy is like her peers in that she enjoys socializing and watching YouTube videos, but unlike them she has a disability. Cassidy uses a wheelchair and has limited verbal skills. She’s reliant on others for everyday things including reacting in an emergency situation.

Her mom requested a copy of Folly Quarter Middle School's personalized plan for Cassidy and was displeased with what came back.

“So, then the plan came that she would be in the stairwell with a staff member and any kid with that need would be there with a staff member, and I was just like 'No,'" Scott said.

Lori sent ABC2 News a copy of that plan. For most of the day, when Cassidy is on the first floor, her evacuation plan would be for the staff member with her to put sound blocking headphones on Cassidy and take her in her wheelchair out of the building with her class. But for her two classes on the second floor, Cassidy is to be taken to stairwell 1, 2 or 4 where she and a school staff member would wait until Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services arrives. Meanwhile, her other peers would continue to evacuate.

“You're strapped to a chair and no way to get out and all you see is people going down the stairs, down the stairs,” Scott said.

According to fire officials, it's true the stairwell would be one of the most stable places in the building, but as many would assume the safest place is never in a burning building.

“That should be the option of very last resort and there are ways to accommodate the need and get her out.” Scott said.

Scott would like to see an alternative option written in the plan, such as an evacuation chair, two-person lift, or any other kind of evacuation device.

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However, there are safety concerns with carrying someone out, and evacuation chairs require training and money. The school system said their current plan is solid.

“So that plan assigns a safe refuge area where the fire department approves and knows to go to help her evacuate and we're following National Fire Protection guidelines as well,” said John White, the director of communications for Howard County Public School System.

That code according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has to do with the “brick and mortar requirements related to buildings,” and not operations on how people need to move to evacuate.

“In addition, the area of refuge is designed based on a fire incident yet we know that there are many other reasons to need to evacuate a building, including but not limited to, earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, chemical spills, attacks, etc. Evacuation plans may very well be different for each of those incidents,” wrote Allan Fraser, a senior building code specialist with the NFPA, in an email.

And according to the “American with Disabilities Act Guide for Local Governments,” local entities are to “adopt policies to ensure that your community evacuation plans enable people with disabilities, including those who have mobility, vision, hearing, or cognitive disabilities, mental illness, or other disabilities, to safely self-evacuate or to be evacuated by others.”

Fraser wrote that the guide does not mean “having to wait for first responders or others to arrive from outside the building and then for them to have to find where people with disabilities may be located in order to get them out of the building. That is discriminatory and which is exactly why the ADA was written. School staff should be trained in procedures and have equipment to properly evacuate people with disabilities.”

ABC2 also reached out to the Howard County Fire and Rescue Services. A spokeswoman wrote: “This is a matter between the Howard County Public School System and the family of the student,” and all inquiries should be directed to HCPSS.

“We'll continue to listen and work with the parent and if we need to make changes and make it even better, and we're able to do that we will,” said White.

It’s a statement Scott hopes they follow through on.

“When you drop your child off at school, you expect them to be safe. We shouldn't be talking about this because common sense should tell you not to leave a person behind,” said Scott.

Recently, Scott met with the school principal and several other officials. For the rest of the school year, Cassidy's classes will be moved to the first level. It’s a solution Lori Scott is not thrilled with, she doesn't think it's fair everyone is moved, and she sees it as a temporary fix. Cassidy has a right to attend classes on the second floor.

The school system also confirmed they will be looking into the cost of evacuation devices sometime in the future.

ABC2 reached out to a number of other school systems in Maryland about their current evacuation policies for students with disabilities. Click here to learn more.

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