When the fire alarm sounds, thousands of Berkeley High School students flood through crowded hallways, with little more than a few inches separating bodies. Elevators immediately shut down, which poses a significant challenge for students with a disability or injury.
“When you’re on crutches, you’re very much aware of how much space you take up,” said BHS sophomore Rhetta Lavender-Hill, who suffered an ACL tear this fall. “It’s a big tripping hazard for you to trip on someone else’s foot. Someone else could trip on your crutch.”
Administrators and teachers follow protocols for evacuating students specifically in wheelchairs. A collection of specialized chairs designed for carrying students down stairs are present for any student who already uses a wheelchair. BHS assigns a staff member to locate the chair and transport the student out of the building safely, according to Principal Juan Raygoza.
Once the fire alarm is activated, administrators will immediately disperse through buildings to check for any students left behind or who may need assistance in evacuating.
If an administrator finds a stranded student who needs assistance evacuating, they will provide assistance to that student before they communicate that the building is cleared.
“The administrator would just go as slowly as they need to go down the stairs,” said Raygoza. “If a student cannot come down on crutches with the assistance of an administrator, that administrator could still have access to one of those (evacuation) wheelchairs.”
For injured students, however, who may be using crutches or a scooter as mobility devices, the communication about the pathway to evacuation is not clear. BHS has not released any information or guidance on evacuating with an injury. Students often make their way down the stairs on crutches or by hopping on one foot.
Lavender-Hill, who evacuated from the first floor of the H Building, noted that the distance required to evacuate, then return to class, is significant. After moving from the H Building to the football field, she had to crutch up three flights of stairs to her next class because the elevators were still not functioning.
“It wears you out,” Lavender-Hill said. “Maybe people on crutches should just have to evacuate the building, but not go all the way to the football field, if it’s safe.”
Beyond physical exhaustion, evacuating on a rainy day can prove dangerous for anyone who relies on a wheelchair or even crutches. Jared Hoch, a Universal 9th Grade (U9) physics teacher, fell down twice in the hallways on a rainy day when using crutches.
Even when elevators are in service, their malfunctions pose an issue to students who rely on them for transportation. Hoch got stuck in the G Building elevator for an hour and a half earlier this year, when the doors would not open until pried open by the fire department.
Additionally, the G Building automatic door operator is completely broken on the second floor. It requires individuals to partially push the door open themselves on the first floor, according to Hoch. This is an issue because students cannot access the elevator without opening the outer door first. The H Building elevator completely lacks an automatic door operator.
Hoch mentioned that promoting functional ADA access is important because every student must have access to learning and teaching without obstruction.
“I think having more automatic doors and rails for getting up and down for more ease of access (would be nice),” Hoch said. “Since we have so many buildings, it could definitely be a little bit improved, especially if kids are going to be using the elevator all the time and the automatic door doesn’t work.”In terms of preventing fire alarms and promoting a safer experience for all at BHS, administration works on helping students understand the consequences of pulling fire alarms. “We’ve also made very clear to students the consequences,” said Principal Raygoza. “These consequences, we’re not thinking about them as punitive, but rather restorative. When we’ve had students that pull alarms in the past, we actually bring them together with students who have to evacuate on wheelchairs to understand the impact that their action which was done as a joke has on their peers.”