(TNS) — Texas special education advocates say a new law requiring video cameras in some classrooms will protect those students most at risk of being abused.
The law says school districts must install cameras in special education classrooms if parents, teachers or school staffers request them. The law also requires that parents be allowed to view the videos.
School officials worry that the law passed this spring — believed to be the first in the nation — will require districts to spend millions without the state providing additional dollars.
But special education advocates say the need to protect these students had gone unaddressed for too long.
“Too many kids are getting hurt in special education classrooms,” said Bethany Watson, a Plano mother who testified in favor of the new law. “If a kid comes home and says, ‘I got hurt,’ all you have to do is go to the video and everything is right there to show what happened or what didn’t.”
State and local officials have time to get ready because the new requirement takes effect in the 2016-17 school year.
While official state estimates peg the cost of the program as comparatively small, others say it could run districts millions of dollars.
One Houston-area police chief testifying in favor of the bill said cameras would have helped his department identify or eliminate suspects in a case where a blind student with autism had bite marks and scratches on her body. The case remains unsolved.
Watson was among a handful of parents who described how their children were hurt. Her now 11-year-old son, Micah, who has autism, came home from school with bruises two years ago.
The area where her son was, known as a calm room, had a video camera. The district says it has been “assertive” in putting cameras in special education classrooms.
However, Watson said she was never told she was allowed to see the video, so her family didn’t know what happened.
It wasn’t until Watson contacted a reporter at KXAS-TV (NBC5) that she was able to get access to the video that showed a teacher knocking her son to the ground, taking off his shoes and forcing him into a small room while holding the door shut.
“The teacher knew he was being videotaped, but he knew we weren’t going to watch it, so it didn’t change his behavior,” Watson said. “If a teacher knows a parent might watch it, they are going to change their behavior.”
Plano school officials investigated the incident. In April, they released a statement saying that the district was changing its calm room policy and that the teacher and another employee no longer worked for the district.
The district did not respond this week to a request for further comment on the incident.
The new law limits the list of those allowed to watch a video. That includes a parent or school employee who is involved in an incident, police officers, nurses, staff trained in de-escalation and restraint techniques, and state authorities who could be investigating.
There wasn’t a lot of public push-back against the bill, but some are worried now about the impact. They fear the mere presence of a camera could push good teachers out of the classroom. Others worry about legal costs.
But overwhelmingly, the top concern is the cost of getting the technology set up. The legislative budget staff estimated a statewide cost of about $2.6 million if districts installed $150 cameras.
Educators say that number is wildly off the mark. Schools already doing such videotaping spend about $3,000 per classroom just for cameras and equipment, said Janna Lily, director of governmental relations for the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education.
And because the new law requires that every area of the classroom be covered — except bathrooms and areas where students might be changing clothes — multiple cameras that record audio must be used per classroom, further driving up the cost.
Then there’s the requirement to archive the video for a minimum of at least six months. Such storage can’t be done on a “cloud” or similar low-cost manner, they said. Federal student privacy laws mean such large files would have to be stored in a secure server.
“That cost could easily drive the cost to $10,000 to $45,000 for one campus alone,” said Christy Rome, executive director of the Texas School Coalition, which focuses on funding issues. “In some cases, that’s the cost of another teacher.”
Districts could have as many as 100 to 300 self-contained special education classrooms that would qualify for the cameras, depending on enrollment.
And Lily said officials are worried that the law’s wording means that any one parent’s request could trigger cameras in special education classrooms across a district, not just at that child’s school. So administrators are looking to plan implementation districtwide.
“I can’t imagine that there would be any school district — maybe a small one — that won’t get a request,” Lily said. “Our members, their job is to ensure that the students with disabilities are getting the services that they need and are treated fairly and carefully, not hurt or injured. We totally understood those parents who had horrendous experiences wanting something to change.”
Advocates say the video cameras will go a long way in both easing parent concerns and in protecting teachers from wrongful accusations.
Seven Aleman, a policy specialist with Disability Rights Texas, said every month his group receives a complaint alleging abuse in a school.
“Parents are hopeful — and to some degree optimistic — that when cameras are in place, the potential for physical abuse or inappropriate restraints to happen will be deterred,” Aleman said, “because it reminds a person who is either on the verge of acting out because of frustration or bad training that someone could be watching.”
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