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Safeguarding the Special Needs Population

PULASKI COUNTY, AR – Founded in 1850, the Arkansas School for the Deaf (ASD) has become a leader in the field of deaf education nationwide. While creating learning opportunities for academic excellence and personal independence, ASD officials are striving to maintain a safe haven for more than 300 students, faculty, and staff. The campus has a tornado safe room, a message net, and visual alert warning systems. Located in Little Rock, ASD consists of three schools (lower, middle, and high) and student dormitories. Some students are bused daily, while others are residents from Sunday evening through Friday afternoon. Since Little Rock has often been hit by damaging wind events, school officials took actions to protect the students and staff.

Officials requested and received funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HGMP). These funds were used in January 2003 to construct a tornado safe room because ASD is located in a high risk area for tornado damage. Designed to specifications outlined in Design and Construction Guidance for Community Safe Rooms (FEMA 361), total cost of the project was $726,132, which included $544,600 (75 percent) in federal funds and $181,533 (12.5 percent) each in state and local funds.

Relying on a visual mode of communicating, students are drilled on necessary actions to take in the event of inclement weather or threats of intrusion. Each classroom is wired to a message net system where information on impending danger is communicated. Additionally, the instructor, communicating via sign language, informs students of the safety measures to be taken. While sign language is the primary method of communicating, strobe lights are also used in the classroom. Plans are to place a warning system of strobe lights strategically around the campus in the event that some students are outside prior to a weather event.

School officials sometimes exercise a “protect in place system” since tornadoes can strike at any time. However, once a month, students and staff are observed on their efficiency and timeliness in accessing the tornado shelter.

“We usually don’t wait until we hear the tornado siren because we have a special needs population that needs physical transport to the tornado shelter,” said C.J. Jacob, executive assistant to the superintendent. “We would just as soon get them there before it starts raining or gets really nasty. There have been times when the kids have spent most of the night in the shelter.”

The safe room has been used as a shelter an average of five to six times per year since its construction. It is stocked with yoga mats, blankets, water, snacks, DVDs, televisions, and games in case students have to remain in place for extended periods. The safe room is also used for professional development activities and extra-curricular activities when it is not needed as a shelter.

“I am not a parent, but I cannot imagine a parent not feeling 100 percent comfortable about the safety of their child while at ASD,” said Jacob. “It makes me feel good knowing there is a place for us to go and that we have other safety measures in place, including 24-hour surveillance cameras where we are able to access 25 screens at a time.”

Last updated June 3, 2020