Strategy crafted to evacuate students

Concerns for wheelchair users lead to countywide guidelines

Stair assistance devices are ruled out

April 03, 2005|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

The small trash can fire at Westminster High in December was extinguished in a matter of minutes, but the debates it sparked have persisted for months.

In the weeks after someone set the fire in the second-floor boys' restroom of the three-story building, parents complained about the school's emergency evacuation policy, which requires any student unable to walk out on his or her own to be moved to the nearest smoke-free stairwell, where the child and an adult are expected to wait for firefighters.

The parents pleaded with administrators to install evacuation chairs in the stairwells.

They also asked school officials to relocate Learning for Independence, the school's life skills program administered through the special-education department, because at least two of the students use wheelchairs, and the program's classrooms are on the second floor.

Since early January, school officials have responded to the parents, saying they have consulted with fire professionals, administrators, teachers and parents.

As a result of parents' concerns, Superintendent Charles I. Ecker last week established emergency evacuation guidelines - which mirror Westminster High's policy - to help other county schools create individual policies.

"We wanted to develop guidelines for the safe, timely and orderly evacuation," said Harry T. Fogle, assistant superintendent of school management, who oversaw development of the guidelines. "We believe strongly that this plan addresses that."

The new guidelines require schools to share their procedures with local fire officials before their first fire drill, maintain an up-to-date list of disabled students and designate staff members to remain with them in the stairwell during an evacuation.

School officials said that after consulting with fire experts, including Westminster Fire Chief Kevin R. Utz, they have decided to stick with the long-established practice of moving disabled students to stairwells so that they can be evacuated by firefighters.

"It's better to wait for firefighters, who are trained to rescue people, instead of putting that on teachers, who are trained to teach," Ecker said.

The only exception to remaining in the stairwell would be when school employees determine students are in "imminent danger."

Also in response to parent complaints, administrators at Westminster High agreed to move classrooms for the life skills program to the first floor to reduce the amount of time these students spend on the second floor.

Because the program's classrooms must include kitchens and handicapped-accessible restrooms, the first-floor rooms must be renovated to accommodate these features. Plans are to have the work completed by the start of school this fall.

"Thirty years ago, special education was different," said John Seaman, the high school's principal. "I asked myself, if I started with a blank page, would I locate the [Learning for Independence] program on the second floor. No, I would locate it on the first floor."

Seaman said, however, that the relocation doesn't mean that wheelchair-using students will never be on the second floor because the cafeteria, nurse's office and administrative offices are on that level. The students also attend other classes throughout the building.

Stephany Savar, the district's special-education supervisor, echoed Seaman's position.

"Special education is not a place, it's a combination of services," she said. "It is very rare for any of these students to be in one room all day. They go to lunch, they go to gym, they go to other academic and elective classes" throughout the building.

In another decision regarding emergency evacuations, Ecker announced that the district would not install chairlifts or other similar devices, which require adults - usually at least two - to lift the student from a wheelchair to be transferred to the device.

"It's not worth the risks of moving the students out of their wheelchairs," he said.

School districts across the state have grappled with the question of whether to use evacuation chairs. Not all agree that they are a good idea.

Anne Arundel school officials decided a few years ago to install evacuation chairs, and some schools in Baltimore County have them.

But Howard County has decided against them, noting research that they say indicates that the chairs can be more of an impediment than a help. Harford County schools also do not have the chairs.

But the new guidelines and other school system responses have done little to appease parents who say they wouldn't want their children waiting in a stairwell while others flee a burning building.

Tom Freeze, whose son Jeremy, 17, is a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy and attends Westminster High's life skills program, said he is frustrated with the new countywide guidelines and Ecker's decision against the evacuation chairs.

"This still leaves our children in the stairwells," he said.

School officials said they are convinced that Westminster High's policy - and the countywide guidelines - are "sound and reasonable." Fire officials agreed and said schools across the nation have used similar procedures for decades.

"We've considered everything we've been asked," Seaman said. "With advice from experts, we've reached informed, reasoned decisions."

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