Testimony

Testimony on a bill to mandate door alarms on all exit doors in all elementary schools and buildings with District 75 programs

Testimony of Vice President for Special Education Carmen Alvarez before the City Council Education Committee

Good afternoon. My name is Carmen Alvarez, and I am the UFT’s vice president for special education. On behalf of our president, Michael Mulgrew, and our 200,000 members, we want to thank Speaker Mark-Viverito, Chairman Dromm and the City Council for the opportunity to testify before you today.

I’d like to begin by commending you for your attention to the safety and security of New York City students and by acknowledging Council Member Cornegy and the other sponsors of Int. 0131 for raising the visibility of this critical issue. The UFT maintains a continual focus on safety in our schools. Nearly 7,500 children in District 75 schools and over a thousand more attending neighborhood schools have been diagnosed with autism and, as I know you realize, the incidence of “running” is significantly higher among this group of children. However, we also have general education students who are prone to “running.”

Teachers, paraprofessionals, guidance counselors, school safety supervisors and other UFT members who work in New York City schools devote their lives to caring for students. We strongly believe that school safety is a fundamental right for every student and staff member.

We know that protecting children who have a tendency to run, whether they are special education or general education students, requires a comprehensive school-wide solution. Just last week, we received a call from educators at school who were desperate for guidance and support concerning this very question of how to deal with children who are “runners.” We told them what we will tell you today: consistent and effective protocols, procedures and preparation are necessary to prevent a child from running out of a school building in the first place. Placing alarms on the exit doors of all elementary schools and all buildings that house District 75 programs, as Int. 0131 calls for, may help in alerting school staff once a child has left the building. But that should just be one piece of an overall plan. By the time an alarm sounds, it’s already too late.

A comprehensive safety plan that maximizes the value of all available technology should include these elements:

Identifying students at risk for running

Schools have a responsibility to identify students who are at risk for running, whether they are special education or general education students. Schools should help these students understand the dangers of running off and encourage appropriate and effective replacement behaviors.

Some schools send letters home to parents of children with autism, asking them if their children are prone to running or wandering off. At a minimum, one of the top five questions for parents at IEP meetings should be whether their child has exhibited this behavior. Likewise, if a staff member notices that a child engages in this behavior at school, the parent should be notified.

While it’s easy to say that students at a risk of running should have that information clearly indicated in their IEPs or behavior intervention plans, the reality is that running is not something you can diagnose and it’s not always known that a student is a runner until they actually run. Furthermore, not all students with a history of running are special education students; general education students will not have an IEP.

That’s why communication and collaboration between parents and schools is critical, but it only happens when there is a culture of trust and support. Some parents are hesitant to inform a school about a past incident for fear that their son or daughter will not be admitted to the school or will be isolated.

Making others aware of “runners”

All school personnel, regardless of whether they have direct contact with students, should be made aware of any students identified as at risk of running.

The UFT recommends that the city Department of Education immediately modify the “alerts” checklist on the IEP cover page to add “elopement risk.” In addition, we strongly recommend that the State Education Department consider adding a similar “alert” component on the first page of the statewide IEP form.

It is also vital that IEPs are regularly updated and that teachers and administrators at any host school to which the student travels have immediate access to that student’s IEP in the Special Education Student Information System (SESIS). This summer, hundreds of children with autism who have 12-month programs will travel to schools they don’t normally attend to receive services. Administrators and staff who have been informed that they are taking on additional students for the summer have told us that because they don’t have information about these new children, they cannot put the proper safety steps in place. It’s a problem waiting to happen.

Receiving schools must have access to the students’ IEPs through SESIS as soon as the summer assignments are made and each staff member with IEP implementation responsibilities must be informed about his or her role and review their students’ IEPs before the summer program begins. This is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately.

The local NYPD precinct should also be informed about at-risk students, again with the full consent of the parent or guardian and within FERPA guidelines, since they will take the lead in searching for the student if he or she is reported missing.

Protecting and supporting students at risk

Once a student has been identified as at risk for running, the school and the child’s parents should work together to ensure that additional assessments are conducted. With the results of these assessments in hand, an IEP meeting should be convened to develop a behavior plan and goals and determine the human and environmental supports needed to protect the child and help the child learn appropriate behaviors. Relevant information about the student’s behaviors, triggers and method of communication (if nonverbal) should be detailed in the IEP. Debriefing and assessing after an incident can be particularly helpful to identify triggers and look for ways to prevent situations from occurring in the future.

School administrators should take steps to ensure that a child who is a known runner is always accompanied by a staff member who knows and understands their behavior, including during the lunch period and transitions between rooms. These children should never be left unsupervised.

Schools can also discreetly provide school safety agents with photos of students who have been identified as runners, so they can recognize those students in the hallways before they attempt to leave the building. This measure can only be used with the full consent of the parent or guardian and within Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) guidelines.

Paraprofessionals play a key role in supporting students who may wander or run off. First and foremost, they work to ensure that the child is safe by keeping an eye on them. Consistent with the child’s IEP goals, paraprofessionals also assist in teaching replacement behaviors and help the student become as self-sufficient as possible.

Educators can teach these children about the dangers of running through “social stories” and strategies like those employed in the “walk with me” program, which teaches instructions like “walk with me” and “stop” and progressively introduces stimuli and distracters. The school and the parent work with the student in using these strategies in different environments. Educators and parents can set goals for students and conduct periodic reviews to see how well the student is doing.

One helpful tool being used by schools participating in the Institute for Understanding Behavior initiative is called the Individual Crisis Management Plan. Schools develop these plans for their students by analyzing their high-risk behaviors, identifying the triggers and other contributing factors for those behaviors, and then helping the students develop coping skills to minimize those behaviors.

Training

Elopement is typically precipitated by a desire to get something, such as access or proximity to something that the child finds interesting or stimulating, or to avoid something, such as a task that the child cannot do or finds difficult or a stimulus such as a loud alarm or yelling that the child finds undesirable.

Every staff member in a school building, from custodians to kitchen staff, should be trained in what behaviors to watch for in children at risk of running and how to intervene when necessary. They must also receive training in the behaviors of students with autism and how certain actions on their part could escalate a situation, trigger extreme fear or anxiety in a child, or prompt a child to run off.

Staff members also need training in what to do when they see any child unsupervised and near an exit. The school-based support team is an important resource in that regard. One particular worry among some District 75 teachers is that their students “tailgate” behind other students who are walking around – or out of – a school building. Everyone needs to be on the lookout for that type of behavior. School doors and gates must be monitored and kept closed at all times.

Proper staffing & scheduling

Summer gives us an opportunity to reassess staffing and scheduling in our schools. Schools must take steps to ensure that at-risk students are supervised during peak stress times – arrival at school, lunch, trips to and from the cafeteria, transitioning from room to room in the building, and at dismissal. Paraprofessionals assigned to provide one-to-one support for a child at risk of running off are particularly important. Many schools use staff members to guard exit doors in large gathering spaces such as cafeterias and auditoriums.

Summer is also an opportunity to reassess the number of school safety agents at a school and to redeploy or bring in new agents as necessary. A school could also consider creating a building-response team. Members of the team would walk the halls throughout the day and respond immediately when an incident occurs.

Use of voluntary identification tools and tracking devices

Many District 75 schools have already put in place strategies to keep track of students who are prone to running. Some schools have explored discreet measures for identifying these students, much in the same way they identify students who are diabetic or have severe peanut allergies. For example, some schools have a tag that clips onto a student’s shoelaces. Schools should discuss the various options with parents.

Parents and caregivers also have the option of using tracking technology for students who may run. U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer has advocated using federal grant funding to pay for ID bracelets that include GPS technology or emit radio frequencies that would allow law enforcement to locate the children in the event they wander off, similar to the devices used with people who have Alzheimer’s disease.

Targeted use of alarms and cameras

Many of our members also support using alarms on doors and surveillance cameras in the halls as part of a larger comprehensive safety plan, but not as a stand-alone mechanism without tailoring to each school building.

If used correctly, alarms and cameras can be important tools. But alarms must be part of a comprehensive system of monitoring throughout the day, ideally with a surveillance camera system that is integrated with the access control system.

Alarms need to be monitored to ensure that every alarm that sounds triggers a response. As we all know, an alarm can’t prevent a student from opening a door and leaving a building; it can only tell you when someone has left. (Alarms also need to be monitored by cameras to deter tampering.) If a student has managed to leave a school, a quick response to the alarm and immediate information on the location of the alarm are essential. Similarly, surveillance cameras can help schools respond quickly if a student is seen to be leaving a building, but only if those cameras are monitored at all times.

It may make the most sense for security agents to have the primary responsibility for monitoring alarms and cameras, possibly with aides or even parent volunteers playing a supporting role. Ideally, the central station would allow for remote monitoring as a backup to in-person monitoring Key people in each school would need to have access to the technology. Rapid communication among school employees in the event of an incident is also essential. To facilitate that, many schools have strategically placed radios and walkie-talkies in classrooms and with certain school personnel in case of emergency.

Alarms or other passive security systems that aren’t wired to a central monitoring system are neither practical nor effective. That’s one of the lessons our school system learned in the early 1990s when the Department of Education experimented with door alarms in response to a series school shootings and stabbings. A public outcry led to putting alarms on many high school doors. This program fell victim to hardware malfunctions and vandalism, resulting in many false alarms to the NYPD and FDNY. This problem of constantly ringing alarms became more disruptive than helpful.

Since many of our school buildings are old, environmental protocols also require the School Construction Authority to probe walls for asbestos and lead before they can be drilled into; remediation may be necessary. Staff who will be using the technology must be trained and scheduled so that someone is always monitoring the feeds. Funding and personnel must be in place to maintain and repair the technology. Some school districts outside of NYC even contract out to security companies that offer video and alarm monitoring management services.

There needs to be a more thoughtful analysis of how security systems can best protect the safety of our students while they are at school. The proposed five-year capital plan includes $100 million for safety and security enhancements that include network-based video surveillance, ID-card access control and radio communication. This funding offers an opportunity to look more closely at these issues, particularly in buildings with District 75 students.

It’s also worth noting that since a loud sound such as an alarm, a siren or even a large crowd can be a ‘trigger’ that causes a child with autism to panic and flee, schools may need to consider nontraditional approaches to an alarm system. For example, if a child with autism has an extreme reaction to loud bells or buzzers, the autism advocacy community strongly supports replacing those alarms with another manner of notification, such as a silent alarm or systems that text teachers and staff. The autism advocacy community also says that visual supports such as a large red STOP sign on a door can be an effective method of stopping a student.

Require DOE & NYPD to develop school-specific protocols

School-specific protocols should be developed and reviewed annually by the city Department of Education, the NYPD and the School Leadership Team, which includes the principal, parents, teachers and, for some schools, students. At that time, a decision can be made about what type of security measures should be installed, taking into consideration the physical layout of the building, whether it is a co-located school, and the needs of that particular school’s student body and other factors. For campuses that house multiple co-located schools, the School Leadership Team of each school should be involved in this process. The review of and training in these protocols for school staff is best done each year before students arrive in the fall.

Schools and their local precincts should hold regular safety and security meetings and establish working relationships. Doing so would create opportunities to develop response and information-sharing protocols involving law enforcement and the school.

We also believe that the DOE should review its missing student protocols once a year. Updates should be made as needed, and the latest information should be passed along to every school. A yearly review would also provide the DOE with an opportunity to identify and circulate examples of effective models and best practices. For example, many schools have learned that running after a student can escalate a situation and instead have created protocols to fan out, follow and close in by using walkie-talkies to relay locations, lock doors and block stairwells to prevent a student from leaving the building.

Modifying building layouts & design

Every school building presents its own unique challenges. Some buildings empty into fenced-in courtyards and enclosed play spaces, while others empty right onto heavily trafficked streets. What’s more, some school interiors are designed to funnel students into main hallways and big foyers that feature several sets of doors, while others feature narrow and winding hallways that are hard to monitor and that exit right onto the sidewalk outside.

When it comes to planning new school buildings, consideration should be given to creating architectural barriers, both inside and out, to prevent students from leaving campus unattended. While not violating building codes and laws, these barriers can make it difficult for children to leave a school without being noticed.

Architectural barriers can also be added to existing buildings wherever possible. Schools typically have many vulnerable areas that make it easy to for students to hide, including stairwells, blind hallways and rooms such as auditoriums that typically have egress doors. A school’s school safety committees and School Leadership Team should conduct regular walk-throughs to reevaluate and find solutions for site-specific issues.

The DOE and the School Construction Authority should consider a pilot program in a few school buildings with District 75 students to assess if cost-effective modifications consistent with building and fire codes could be made that would make it more difficult for students to run off. These are tough issues with the other safety concerns in a school that the building’s design must accommodate. Making changes to existing buildings is, of course, challenging, but the design for new school buildings should immediately explore these issues.

Additional thoughts

There are many moving parts in any school system, but particularly in a system as large as ours. That means individual schools can’t do this important work without help and support from all of us. A comprehensive student safety plan hinges on consistent policies, procedures and protocols from the city DOE. At the school level, for the plan to be effective, everyone in a school building as well as parents and law enforcement should be informed and engaged.

The UFT looks forward to working with Speaker Viverito, Council Member Dromm, Council Member Cornegy and the bill’s other sponsors as a partner in ensuring that our students are kept safe at all times. Thank you again for spotlighting this critical issue.

Read more: Testimony
Related topics: school safety, special ed
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