WARREN, NJ – The Watchung Hills Regional High School District Board of Education has agreed to settle allegations that it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it failed to evacuate at least one student with a mobility disability during a school-wide evacuation and failed to have any policies addressing emergency evacuations of students with disabilities, Acting U.S. Attorney William E. Fitzpatrick announced on Monday.

According to the agreement, on Oct. 7, 2014, the district failed to evacuate at least one student with a mobility disability during an unplanned emergency evacuation. Instead, the student was left on the second floor while students without disabilities were evacuated. The district also did not have a policy or practice that allowed students with mobility impairments to participate fully and equally during emergency evacuation drills.

Watchung Hills sent a letter to parents and students on Tuesday addressing the issue. It reads:

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Dear Watchung Hills Parents & Students,

I would like to provide clarification to a recent article that appeared in the media regarding our evacuation procedures and assure you that our first priority is always the safety of our students and staff.  Each year, our School Safety Team, in conjunction with the local police and fire departments and the county prosecutor’s office, revises and updates our School Safety Plan as demands and laws change.  As per our Safety Plan, our entire staff receives annual training on evacuation procedures and evacuation maps are posted in every classroom within our building.  To ensure that all students, including those with disabilities, are able to participate in drills as well as be evacuated safely in an emergency, our building is equipped with four, clearly marked areas of refuge for disabled students who may be on the second floor during an emergency evacuation or drill.  The areas of refuge are equipped with call boxes and stairwell wheelchair sleds, which members of our staff are trained to use should the need arise in an emergency prior to the arrival of fire or police department personnel.  Should you have any additional questions regarding our evacuation procedures, I encourage you to reach out to our Director of Security, Mr. Christopher Shea at cshea@whrhs.org.

 

The ADA prohibits a public entity from, among other things, excluding or denying individuals with disabilities from benefits the public services, programs, or activities. To comply with the ADA, the district must ensure that students with disabilities are afforded “meaningful access” to its services, benefits and activities, including emergency preparedness and emergency evacuations. 

“Schools should provide a safe and inclusive environment for all students,” Fitzpatrick said in the release. “The ADA mandate is especially pronounced when it comes to programs involving student safety. Through this agreement, the district must enforce an emergency evacuation policy that ensures equal participation and the safety of students with mobility disabilities.”

The district has agreed to ensure that students with disabilities are able to participate meaningfully in emergency evacuations and evacuations drills, the release said. It has also agreed to provide ADA training to all of its employees who interact with students with disabilities. The district has adopted policies to ensure that students with disabilities will not be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the district’s safety protocols and practices, including emergency evacuations and drills. The district has agreed to adopt and implement evacuation plans for students with disabilities who have mobility impairments so that all students have the opportunity to participate in evacuations, whether they are actual evacuations or drills.