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Fleeing to Safety: How Will Students With Special Needs Continue to Survive School Shootings?

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Students Hide

As the video image sharpens, we see a foot, a small body hunched under a desk, and we hear screaming, children screaming, The video is being recorded from the floor at Marjory Stonemason Douglas High School where students are hiding from the active shooter. Our children are taught to be quiet in lockdowns and rush to hide in closets and bathrooms and sometimes, like this time, they are even told to run.

But what if they can’t? Can’t calm themselves enough to be quiet? Can’t see in the semi-dark room? Can’t hear the alarm or cry of danger? What if they can’t walk or move to the closest hiding place? What if they can’t follow the directions they are given?

We were driving home from school when my daughter began telling me about the lockdown drill. “Mom...” she started. “I think I need to park my wheelchair somewhere different in History class. We had a drill today and..." "What?” I interrupt. I tightly hold the steering wheel and remind myself to breathe. “Well my wheelchair was in the back of my class, and I couldn’t drive out the other door we use for drills, so my friend helped me walk. Is that okay?”

It is a simple question, but I am already running through scenarios — How my daughter can only walk about 4 feet unassisted before she falls. How unbalanced she is when you take her hand to walk her. What if it is real? What if she is slowing someone down? Will they drop her hand and run? I trust the staff at her school, even her compassionate classmates. Is it enough? What if there is a fire? A shooting? What is the fastest route? The safest? For her? For her friend? We work out a plan, and she is content. But she is the child, and I am the parent, and I know our plan has flaws. For every school, for every student — there isn’t a safety protocol that exists that will keep every child safe.

Police Storm The Classroom

In this video, the classroom is semi-dark. That is the practice in lockdowns. I know this means, that if my daughter were there, with her impaired vision, she would see nothing. And that fear is real within me. My heartbeat quickens as I watch. One student is standing, the rest are seated, and I wonder about that student standing and how vulnerable he is just as the SWAT team enters the classroom calling out their demands of “Hands! Hands!" Almost all the students immediately raise their hands, I see hands that are unable to be held still, and I know there are students who will not be able to process fast enough the urgent cry of police to raise their "Hands! Hands! Hands!" What happens then? We know now this active shooter was able to blend into the crowd of uninjured students. What will happen next time?

Students Flee to Safety

Single file the students move quickly down the sidewalk, their hands displayed on the shoulders of the student in front of them. This video zooms in, and we see their hurried steps and frightened faces. The news report ends with an audio account from another high school student fleeing the building. "I put my backpack on just in case I got shot, and I just ran,” she says. I am hurting for these students, hurting for their mothers, as I wipe my tears away. But it is my own daughter’s backpack I picture. The way I helped her strap it on this morning, the way I do every day, to the back of her wheelchair. "I just ran,” says the girl on the video again. "I just ran.”

Emotional Reunions

We watch the parents crying, their arms tightly wrapped around their children. Emotions are raw; the video captured only moments after the attack. We see the shock on the faces of teachers and staff. We make promises; parents tell us to “hold our children tight." And we do, we keep them close, and that night we struggle to explain to our children how these events happen.

We talk about prevention, and schools alert us to their current safety protocol, reminding us that they care about protecting our children, that they care about their academic, social and emotional well-being, that they are even adding more behavioral health support specialists to their staff.

And as parents, we make promises to safeguard and better monitor the mental health of our kids. We promise we will try even harder. To keep them safe from what will be yet another school shooting. Another time when students will hide, when students will flee, running for their safety, when police will storm the classroom screaming, "Hands! Hands! Hands!" And when, at the end of that day, we hope again that we are lucky enough to just to hold them tight.

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