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Texas Law On Cameras In Special Needs Classrooms Inspires Heated Debate

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Texas has become the first state to require cameras in special education classrooms, upon the request of a parent. The new state law, which went into effect at the beginning of the 2017 school year, is intended to protect students with disabilities from abuse and mistreatment. But the statute’s scope, along with the benefits it promises, have been called into question.

Will Classroom Cameras Protect Vulnerable Students?

Children with special needs are far more likely to suffer abuse and bullying at school than their counterparts. As Ron Hager, an attorney for the National Disabilities Rights Network, told reporters at PBS, children with disabilities account for around 12% of the student population – but suffer about 70% of the restrictive conditions, from restraint to seclusion, imposed on students.

Surveillance Camera Shadow

A new Texas law, Senate Bill 507, hopes to change that. Passed in 2015, the bill requires school districts to install video surveillance cameras in all self-contained classrooms that serve students in special education programs. The installation of cameras is triggered by a parental request, but in a September ruling on the law’s scope, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton advised school districts throughout the State that they won’t be given the option to opt-out.

While Georgia has a similar law, schools in the State aren’t required to participate; compliance with a request is entirely voluntary. In Texas, on the other hand, a parental petition can’t be ignored, according to Attorney General Paxton. Likewise, this broad requirement can’t be nullified by the protests of other parents of children with special needs, some of whom have expressed concerns over student privacy. In fact, one parent’s request will require the entire school district to install cameras in every self-contained special needs classroom across the district.

Compliance Requirements Too Broad, Too Expensive, School Districts Say

Many school districts have argued that the law’s sweeping requirements will prove financially unworkable. The Amarillo Independent School District, with 75 special needs classrooms in total, says that a parental request for cameras would cost around $500,000. As you would expect, larger school districts have reported far-higher financial burdens, according to education news site The74 . Serving around 115,000 students in the Houston area, the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District notes an estimated cost between $3 million and $5 million.

Arguing that Attorney General Paxton’s ruling is only an “opinion,” representatives for Cypress-Fairbanks say the district is only installing cameras in classrooms for which specific requests have been made. The school district has installed 23 cameras, on the basis of 18 parent requests, so far.

Mother Fought For Years To See Bill Passed

The implementation of Senate Bill 507 will see the culmination of one mother’s years-long campaign to increase protections for children who often cannot speak up in their own defense. Bregget Rideau’s son, Terrence, was in middle school when his mother noticed he had begun to come home with inexplicable injuries, including a dislocated knee and broken thumb. Terrence, who has severe developmental disabilities, couldn’t tell his parents what had happened. A school district investigation, however, turned up evidence that Terrence had suffered unspeakable abuse at the hands of his teacher. After years of legal battle, a Texas jury reached the same conclusion, awarding Terrence Rideau and his family an award of $1 million.

But Terrence’s mother wasn’t finished. A New Orleans native and Grammy-nominated jazz musician, Rideau set out on an unlikely campaign, hoping to convince Texas’ House and Senate that cameras in special education classrooms could save other students from suffering the abuse that her son had been subjected to. However unlikely, Rideau’s efforts were successful, garnering high-level support from State Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr.

Special Needs Advocates Debate Benefits Of Classroom Surveillance

Support for the bill’s provisions within the disability community has been split. While the National Autism Association has thrown its weight behind the use of cameras as a safety precaution, the national advocacy group TASH fears that installing surveillance equipment only in special needs classrooms could lead to the further segregation of children with disabilities.

Schools are already biased toward placing students with special needs in restrictive settings, the non-profit argues. Restricting the use of cameras to special needs classrooms, and thus creating the impression of increased “safety,” would just add another argument to support that bias. Moreover, the use of surveillance equipment could just drive abuse and mistreatment “underground.”

Eddie Lucio, for that matter, has come out against Attorney General Paxton’s interpretation of the bill. In fact, the Democratic State Senator recently introduced a new law, Senate Bill 1398, that would limit the scope of his original statute. Saying Paxton’s opinion had “far exceed[ed] legislative intent,” Lucio hopes to restrict the requirement for cameras only to those classrooms for which a specific request is made.

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