Safety of all students should be priority

Guest Columist: Shawn Bryant

My name is Shawn Bryant, and I am a sophomore at Washburn University. I decided at the age of 13 Washburn was the school for me. Being one the top 10 schools in the Midwest, and one of the most accessible, made this decision very easy for me. However, after being a student here for a year, some issues have arisen that I would like to bring to your attention in hopes of helping Washburn truly become an institute where all students are welcome.

Sept. 1 at 12:30 a.m. tornado sirens sounded for the Topeka area. I evacuated my room and headed to the commons building of the Washburn Village. Once there, it became apparent there was no accessible entrance for students with disabilities to the tornado shelter. My community adviser asked the Washburn University police officer on duty how we could get me down the two flights of cement stairs. The officer then asked fellow officers (via two-way radio) how to get “handicapped kids” to shelter. A few minutes later he comes to me with an evacuee chair and asks me how to use it. This chair was not equipped to safely get me out of harm’s way, and if tried it could have injured several people, resulting in a major liability for Washburn. More importantly, why is the person who is here to protect me uneducated on crucial evacuation plans? There is a clear need for disability etiquette and emergency evacuation trainings. Terms such as “handicap” and “kids” are neither acceptable nor cultured.

With the majority of students in the basement, a few residential living staff and myself sat in the lobby area of the commons building. The next day, the Safety Department contacted me offering these suggestions – one could install a storm door in my bathroom or I could sit in the landing of the basement or scoot down the basement stairs.

None of the options are logical or safe. Students are required to leave the building for obvious safety reasons, so I doubt a “sturdy” door will prevent the second and third floors from collapsing. Sitting in the landing of the basement is dangerous for all students. People could trip and fall, causing serious injury. The only way scooting down stairs would be an option was if I was able to do this before or after everyone else had gotten downstairs. Since there is no way to predict when a tornado will occur, coming before hand is not a feasible option. Waiting after everyone has gone is nearly impossible, people will be constantly trying to get to safety, and there is no way to tell when all students are evacuated.

The larger picture that must be seen is what message are we sending to current and potential students of Washburn? When I realized there was no real plan to assist me during this situation, I felt unwelcome and belittled. When the right accommodations are not in place, I feel as though I am overlooked, that I was not, nor have I ever been, recognized as a student here at Washburn University, and that my personal safety and well being was ignored and not taken into consideration.

I do not want any future student to experience these feelings. I attend college in hopes of advancement and success, and I expect Washburn to play a crucial part in that success. However, how can I succeed if I don’t feel safe? How can one focus on academics, campus activities and social exposure knowing that if an emergency were to occur, no one would be able to assist? Students depending on mechanical aids, (wheelchairs, canes, etc.), 100 percent of the time need clear, concise, permanent evacuation plans. If someone is confined to a wheelchair, there is no way to get to safety. Ramps can be added for wheelchair users, and mobile chairs can be added to stairwell railings and guide someone to the lower level, for those able to get out of their chair. Evacuation plans for the blind and deaf need to be put into action. “Buddy” systems have been used at other schools but can be faulty if the “buddy” is not on campus. I strongly suggest these things be taken into consideration for the well being of our students.

Unfortunately, I assumed Washburn University would have been capable to handle these situations. It saddens me to know actual sirens had to sound for this necessity to become apparent. Fortunately, I am more than willing to connect Washburn University with the proper sources to initiate and ensure adequate training of all employees on these issues.

I fear this lack of preparation could cause severe harm to Washburn University and its students if not handled in a prompt manner. Please contact me for any questions and concerns you may have regarding this issue. I am more then willing to serve as an adviser for campus safety or whatever committees that might be needed to ensure the safety of our students.