Reporting Dave Savini
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CHICAGO (CBS) – A family is fighting for the rights of their 9-year-old son, and other children in wheelchairs who are forced to attend classes on the second and third floor of a Chicago Public School.
Theresa and Mark August say the children could get trapped during a fire or other emergency.
CBS 2′s Dave Savini went looking for answers and a safety plan.
The August’s son, Austin, is blind and non-verbal. He requires help, including a wheelchair to get around.
“He was born really early: 24 weeks,” said Theresa August. “He had a lot complications; cognitive disability.”
Austin’s parents say the most recent challenge is finding him a safe school. He is supposed to go to John L. Marsh Elementary, but his parents removed him after they learned he and seven other children in wheelchairs were put in a second floor classroom, and would also spend time in the computer lab on the third floor.
They said they don’t think those children would be safe if there were an emergency requiring the school to be evacuated.
Theresa August says the school is not safe for kids in wheelchairs, because there are too many students to evacuate down stairwells during an emergency.
“I want to change this, not just for him, but the other kids too,” said August, who says she has not been shown an evacuation plan for the school.
She also said she’s concerned because her son would need to be gently handled, due to all the surgeries he has had on his legs and hips.
Mark August worries for his son’s safety, and knows tragedy can strike at any moment.
In 2003, he worked in the Cook County administrative building at 69 W. Washington St., where six people were killed after they became trapped in the stairwell while trying to evacuate from a fire. Mark August was lucky. He left the building early that day.
He said he knows how important it is to have a good evacuation plan.
“I know it almost has to be fool proof,” said August. “I see it when we do drills in our own building.”
Gary Michaels, a special education advocate working on behalf of the family, says the students should be placed in a different classroom.
“To me, it’s common sense that these kids shouldn’t be on the second floor,” said Michaels.
Michaels said he witnessed and timed a fire drill earlier in the school year, and claims some of the children in wheelchairs were left behind.
“When I witnessed the fire drill, it was unbelievable,” said Michaels. “I couldn’t believe that they’d left kids in the building number one and they took 12 minutes.”
“I don’t know what I would do without him, I really don’t,” said Theresa August.
The Augusts said they contacted the area firehouse, and they say the battalion chief told them he was unaware that children in wheelchairs were even in the school. There is an elevator, but it is shut down during fire alarms.
A CPS spokesperson says evacuation chairs with rollers are available to transfer them down stairs during emergencies. District officials claim they were unaware the family ever asked for the evacuation plan, but CBS 2 has obtained the emails showing the family clearly asked the principal for it.
CPS officials also denied the fire drill in question took 12 minutes. They claim it only took three minutes.
The August family plans to file a lawsuit if they can’t get this resolved out of a court.