AUSTIN (KXAN) – Kamaris Morales and Ashley Curry live on opposite sides of the state. But they have more than one thing in common.

They both have kids who are non-verbal and have autism attending Texas public schools. They both tried to get cameras installed in their child’s special education classrooms.

They both have had no luck.

Morales requested a camera be installed in her 9-year-old daughter Faith’s special education class, located in Houston, at the beginning of the school year.

Houston ISD approved the request in September 2021, records show, but the school year is now over — and a camera is still not installed and operational.  

The district said in a statement it “makes every effort to comply with the 45-day deadline once parental requests are received for cameras to be installed in self-contained classrooms. Unfortunately, as has been the case nationwide, supply chain issues have caused indefinite delays for necessary components to complete such requests.”

“They think that we are requesting these because we want to make drama,” Morales said. “It is not like that. There are kids — like my child, she is nonverbal. There are kids in there that are non-verbal. These cameras would help.”

The lack of cameras in special education classrooms can be problematic if anyone suspects abuse of a student who is unable to talk.

A special education director at Hutto Independent School District – and another employee – were criminally charged with assault and unlawful restraint of a non-verbal Hutto High School student with severe autism in 2020. The case ended in a mistrial in May.

There were no surveillance cameras installed in any of the special education classrooms at the time, according to the school district. In the years since, the district said it still has not placed cameras in those rooms.

“Camera installation is based on parent request. We currently do not have any installed. Up to this point no parent has ever made the request,” the Hutto ISD spokesperson said in an email statement.

But parents are not the only people allowed to request cameras in special education classrooms. Texas law requires school districts to install cameras when a school board member or any district employee requests one be installed – if it meets the criteria.

Adding cameras to classrooms

Parents have only had the ability to request a camera in certain special education classrooms since 2015 — when lawmakers passed Senate Bill 507. But there are stipulations.

The law only requires school districts to install cameras in classrooms where most of the students are in a special education setting at least half of the time.

For parents requesting a camera, their student must also spend their day in a special education classroom at least half the time.

A KXAN analysis of more than 100 requests to seven Central Texas School Districts found most requests for cameras in special education classrooms were approved.

But we found multiple cases where a school district denied the request — the student involved was receiving special education services, but the camera request was rejected because the classroom itself did not meet the criteria.

Austin Independent School District has approved more than 40 requests for cameras to be installed in special education classrooms and denied 14 requests since 2016.

In one request from 2018, an Austin ISD elementary school principal requested cameras be installed in two special education classrooms.

She said in an email “the cameras are needed for the safety of my staff and students, but students are not scheduled in these spaces for more than half the day.”

In response, the district’s special education office replied to it “was only obligated to place and operate video/audio surveillance equipment in a self-contained classroom or setting relevant student or staff member is assigned.”

What is a self-contained classroom?

A special education classroom where a majority of the students are in a special education setting at least half of the time.

The principal withdrew the request the next day.  

From year to year, school districts often require parents and other requesters, such as teachers and school employees, to re-submit a request for a camera in the special education classroom.

The cameras in some cases were already installed and operational but would be turned off unless someone got a new request approved.  

Parents and others push for better access

Curry, the mother of three kids who receive special education services in the Hillsboro ISD, asked via email for a camera to be installed in one of the special education classrooms in April 2022.

Curry said she was never informed that there were already cameras installed — but not being used.

Hillsboro ISD Superintendent Vicki Adams confirmed all the self-contained special education classrooms in the district’s school buildings currently have cameras installed.

But Adams said, “if, at all possible, we do not use them unless we have a volatile situation and we are trying to protect the staff and other students.”

Several school districts throughout Central Texas do not allow parents to have physical copies of surveillance video showing their students — and only allow viewings of the footage. Curry said she ultimately decided not to move forward with making a formal request for a camera in her child’s classroom.

“The hoops you have to jump through is 100% to deter the parents away from having access to those cameras,” Curry said. “Even when you do have access, you’re not allowed to have the footage.”

Before Texas lawmakers passed the current law, allowing parents to request cameras, there was a push by the now Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to require school districts to proactively install cameras in all their self-contained special education classrooms.

The legislature estimated at the time the law would cost approximately $2.2 million to execute.

Advocacy groups, like Disability Rights Texas, recently renewed that push, asking the legislature to update the current law to mandate school districts install cameras in all their isolated classrooms where students with disabilities are with educators.

“It will serve the best interest of the educators to protect them to show what actually happened before an incident — and it will protect those students as a deterrent to potentially life-threatening behavior by educators,” said Disability Rights Texas Policy Director Steven Aleman.

In an interview with KXAN, Texas Rep. Donna Howard, who sponsored the failed 2013 bill, supported amending the law to require school districts to install cameras but says lawmakers should also provide the funds to school districts to comply.

“I don’t think it is unreasonable to require cameras in those classrooms that are self-contained, where students have no ability to report or take care of themselves, protect themselves,” Rep. Howard said. “We should not have to put the burden on the parents to request it.”