While the residents of Preska Residence Community evacuated the building on Aug. 30, 2021 at the sound of a fire alarm, one student remained behind.
But not by choice.
Minnesota State University, Mankato freshman Val Weber, a long time wheelchair user due to a rare bone disorder, found herself alone on the second floor of the building she considers home — despite her multiple unanswered calls for help.
As alarms blared, Weber said she felt a rush of fear and sadness overtake her. She watched the last two residents of her building make their way down a flight of stairs to meet the others outside.
Knowing she couldn’t do the same with her wheelchair, and that elevators are unsafe to use during a fire, Weber did the only thing she knew she could do: she followed protocol.
The protocol states that, in case of a fire, individuals who use wheelchairs should remain in their rooms and call Campus Security for assistance. This protocol was emailed to Weber by Assistant Director of Accessibility Resources Beth Claussen before Weber arrived on campus.
But Weber said Campus Security, which says it stands by its handling of the situation, ultimately failed Weber, and she was left alone during what could have been a life-threatening situation.
“I called security and they told me they would send people,” she said. “I told them my name, my location, and that I was trapped on the second floor.”
Nearly 20 minutes went by and Weber was still stuck in the building alone. She called security again.
“They told me it wasn’t a real fire and that it was being taken care of, but I was still trapped in the building,” she said. “I told them, ‘Hey, you told me you’d send people, I’m trapped on the second floor. I use a wheelchair and I can’t use the elevators,’ and they said ‘We didn’t hear anything about a wheelchair.’ But trapped is still trapped. It shouldn’t matter whether you’re in a wheelchair or not.”
Within the first week of the event occurring, Weber took it upon herself to call Campus Security and explain the situation, letting them know she considered their lack of response to her plight unacceptable.
“They told me I didn’t say enough, like my name and stating that it’s in my protocol,” she said. “I did all of those things. So I asked them if the call was recorded and he said that it was, so I told him to listen to it because I did say enough.”
Despite her efforts, Weber realized she wasn’t getting anywhere by talking to one person from Campus Security on the phone. She decided to reach out to head of Campus Security Sandi Schnorenberg to see if she would be more understanding about the situation that occurred.
“I told her what happened and that I would like to meet with her about it,” Weber said. “She said that she would create a poll with times that she was available. The times were all in September and October and I voted for a few that worked for me but I didn’t hear back about any.”
When no word about the meeting came her way, Weber reached out to Schnorenberg again.
“She replied within the next week and told me she would try again,” she said. “We finally got a meeting scheduled a week after that. But the process took so long, about two months.”
Pushing her frustration aside, Weber showed up to the meeting hopeful. With MSU Social Work Professor Nancy Fitzsimons by her side, she said she expected to leave with a resolution to the problem. Instead, Weber found herself leaving defeated and disappointed.
“It was an absolute dumpster fire,” she said about the meeting. “It was so bad.”
Weber even found herself in tears during the meeting, which she said is an unlikely thing for her to do.
“Sandi said she was really glad I could get my emotions out, but that wasn’t why I came,” she said. “I felt gaslighted the entire time.”
Weber said she went to the meeting hoping for some form of assurance or resolution, but instead was greeted by a group of individuals who worked for Campus Security and the University who she says made her feel as though she was at fault.
“They told me I couldn’t rely on 911 because they would take longer than security would to get there and that they would be receiving a lot of calls from other people about a fire,” Weber said. She was also told she couldn’t rely on Campus Security because they could take awhile to get to her.
Confused about what she should do in that situation, Weber asked them for guidance. She said an individual advised her to rely on others in the building, such as fellow students and faculty, to evacuate her.
“I thought that was ridiculous,” she said. “Those people are untrained and don’t know anything about me or my wheelchair. They’re also probably scared and panicking themselves, and I don’t want to have to rely on them when they’re in that state.”
Weber says she told them she refused to have no one to rely on except for the strangers around her. She says Schnorenberg’s response was “It gets to a point where we have to look out for ourselves.”
According to Schnorenberg, what she meant by that statement is that, in a time of an emergency when Plan A fails, such as seeking help elsewhere, then Plan B must be executed, such as helping yourself.
Weber began using a wheelchair 15 years ago. She suffers from a rare bone disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta (OI). The disease causes her bones to break easily, and she has had up to 20 bone fractures throughout her life.
“At this point in my life, I can stand and walk very short distances,” she said. “But my muscles aren’t used to walking or using my legs so I get tired very easily and need a wheelchair.”
Although her disease is rare and the use of a wheelchair may not be needed by most, it’s not unheard of. As stated by the US National Library of Medicine National Institute of Health, approximately 2.7 million people in the United States are wheelchair users, 27,000 of whom are in Minnesota, so the chances of them attending the University as a student, faculty, or visiting as a guest are high. Weber believes that their access and aid on campus should be as well.
“At the end of it all, nothing was solved,” she said. “They told me to keep the same protocol I was taught because there would be communication issues if a new one was created. But the one in place doesn’t even work.”
Regardless, Weber said she would continue to advocate for herself and others like her in hopes of making the hard situations a little easier.
“I wish people in authoritative places and those who protect and serve would just listen and help,” she said. “I pay a lot of tuition for things I can’t even use on campus, and that’s not OK.”
Although University officials cannot comment on the specific incident or speak about individuals such as Weber due to privacy laws in place, Schnorenberg did offer some clarity on emergency procedures and plans.
“We [as a University] are making progress,” she said. “We didn’t use to have any kind of plan for students and this is really the first time, within the last year, that we’re hearing from students that may need more help when things happen.”
Due to how relatively new individual procedures and plans are on campus, it’s still undergoing some changes in order to make it better.
“Like any program that starts something new, things need to evolve, improve, and be talked about and exercised,” Schnorenberg said. “That’s what preparedness is all about; putting together a plan, exercising that plan, and whatever doesn’t work gets changed and fixed as ability, training, and knowledge changes as well.”
Schnorenberg also explains that she cannot simply ask an individual if they have a disability and need assistance. Individuals must advocate for what they need, which is where the helping yourself motto comes in.
“We [as a University] have to rely on them to come forward and say ‘I’m a disabled person and I want you to know that I need help’ because once they do that, then Accessibility Resources can work with them to develop a plan,” she said. “They also need to give permission to share that information so we can use it.”
Schnorenberg said the University will continue to make and tweak emergency procedures and plans as needed and that she and her team are always available to students who need them.
“I have every confidence in my staff that, even if we don’t have a plan, we’re going to figure something out,” she said. “We’re going to do something to help people in some way shape or form. It may not be pretty, but we’ll get there.”
Header Photo: Val Weber, who is a freshman at MSU, is a longtime wheelchair user who experienced complications with Campus Security involving evacutaiton. (Maddie Behrens/The Reporter)