Examining Special Education Policy Documents Before and After Natural Disasters


  • Jazmine Winters, Public Policy, University of Delaware

Faculty Mentor(s)

  • Amanda Owen Van Horne, Communication Sciences and Disorders, University of Delaware


Natural disasters are of increasing frequency with the advent of climate change, disrupting daily life in many communities. Researchers study the ways that adults can protect vulnerable populations, including children, during these events, a task that increases in complexity when considering the presence of disability/difference. Children spend the majority of their time in schools that serve as community hubs in the midst of disasters, making the way that schools respond of particular interest. This study examines what policies guide how elementary schools provide services to children receiving special education during and after weather events associated with climate change. We compiled a list of elementary schools across the nation that were affected by different types of natural disasters over the last 15 years. Schools were identified as experiencing a disaster if they were listed in a database provided by the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) as requesting funding for public building repair. This database also included information about  the amount of damage that occurred in each region and the type of weather incident. We asked 53 elementary school principals and 26 district superintendents to provide policy information regarding a plan of action for natural disasters that were in place before and after the target events occurred. We are in the process of collecting policy documents from educational personnel. Responses will be analyzed based on whether special education students are mentioned specifically, the presence of changes following lived experience, and regional specificity to particular types of disasters. Of particular interest is the role of the school in mitigating long-term damage to children, and the role that the school plays in easing trauma related to displacement, relocation,  and educational disruptions. By ensuring school preparedness, we can minimize risk and work towards a better recovery process for all children after natural hazards.