Student in wheelchair was left in school during emergency evacuation, feds say
WARREN — When Watchung Hills Regional High School had an unplanned fire alarm in October 2014, most of the school's approximately 2,100 students were able to safely get out of the building.
But one student in wheelchair was left in a second-floor classroom with no way to get out, the acting U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey said as he announced Watchung Hills has agreed to make several changes to ensure similar incidents don't happen in the future.
The school has agreed to a settlement of allegations it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Acting U.S. Attorney William E. Fitzpatrick said Watchung Hills didn't have any procedure to get the student out of the building for the drill. It also didn't have a plan for how to help students with mobility issues to get out of the building in the event of an emergency.
"Schools should provide a safe and inclusive environment for all students," Fitzpatrick said. "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."
Robert Morrison, president of the Watchung Hills Regional High School District Board of Education released a statement on the settlement on Tuesday morning saying that the student "was never in danger and was accompanied by a school administrator at all times during the evacuation."
"The health and safety of all pupils is paramount and the district would never do anything to put any student in harm's way," Morrison said.
Morrison also said the district had taken steps to address issues expressed in the suit before its filing saying "the complaint and/or the settlement was not the impetus for the District taking appropriate action in this matter."
"We recognized that there was room for improvement and our administrators responded in a timely and responsible manner," Morrison said.
According to the settlement agreement, the student involved in the lawsuit was one of two in the building with mobility disabilities, and was in a second-floor history class when the evacuation order was given. Because the school's elevator was shut down during the evacuation, the student had no way to get downstairs and out of the building.
The settlement agreement said the child's parents were told at the time of his enrollment that all of his classes would be on the first floor to allow him to evacuate in an emergency, and that during the evacuation some students stayed with him until they were told to leave. At that time an administrator waited with them until the "all clear" was given, the agreement says.
As part of the settlement, the district agreed to take several steps to make it more ADA compliant. That includes ensuring all students are able to take part in "safety protocols and practices," providing training to school employees about the ADA and implementing an evacuation plan for students with disabilities within 30 days.
Morrison said the district has already created what he called "areas of refuge" for disabled students on the second floor at the time of an emergency. These areas include call boxes and stairwell wheelchair sleds.
"We are greatly disappointed in the way this matter has been publicly portrayed to infer that the school district and administration did anything improper," Morrison said. "The Board of Education fully supports the proactive actions of the administration to address this issue. We are confident that the measures we have taken in this matter fully protect the rights of all students which is always our primary and overriding concern."
The settlement agreement is valid for three years.
It wasn't clear from the settlement agreement what prompted the 2014 fire alarm or if there had been any danger to students.
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