Parents want clarity on law requiring cameras in special ed classrooms

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Surveillance video cameras can be a voice for the most vulnerable children in Texas schools. Parents and advocates within the special education community testified in Austin Monday morning about what more they want to see out of a 2015 law requiring these cameras in certain special education settings. 

For Maggie Suter, the only way she knew what happened to her son with special needs was because there were cameras in his classroom. She says her experience paints a clear picture of how crucial the footage can be. 

“When my son’s abuse at the age of eight was caught on video in 2015, prior to the passing of the law, my husband and I were told by the principal that it wasn’t really ‘a big deal,’” she said. “After we demanded to see the video for ourselves, we quickly realized that we had a difference of opinion. Being choked with two hands around the neck, shaken and thrown to the ground sure looked like abuse to us.” 

Suter and other advocates want the Texas Education Agency to set up a uniform appeal process if a request for installing video cameras or viewing footage is denied. In the agency’s latest draft of proposed rules, it also states each school district board of trustees and open-enrollment charter school governing body must adopt written policies relating to the placement, operation, and maintenance of video cameras. 

“They require that [the requestor] exhaust any local grievance process and again, districts are free to make any local grievance process they want for this statute,” Christine Broughal, a member of Texans for Special Education Reform, said.  

Texans for Special Education Reform argues that leaving it up to the districts to decide will complicate this law. The organization also feels parents will have to seek legal help to navigate the process. 

“There should not be any opportunity for video recordings to be handled, viewed or tampered without a parent present at the same time,” Suter said. 

Some districts want clearer rules too, saying it will eliminate confusion. At Manor ISD, there are currently 10 cameras installed.  

“Once a parent requests to see the footage, we have specific personnel that can view the footage as well and we review it,” executive director of special programs Michele McKinley said. “Then we make the decision as to when we would show it to the parents. The best-case scenario is that we, depending on who is in the footage, that we would have to screen out faces if it’s showing other students in the video.” 

The personnel includes the employee involved in the alleged incident, a parent/guardian, school nurse, district administrator trained in de-escalation, human resources, Child Protective Services, the Texas Education Agency and the State Board of Education. McKinley says to her knowledge, they’ve never had to deny a request to view the footage. But having uniform rules from the state to follow will help uphold the intent of the law, she said. 

“School districts really want to work with parents because we all understand the reason for the legislation,” McKinley said. “The biggest thing is this has opened the door for school districts and parents to build a relationship. And the gray areas, it almost hinders us being able to continue to have a better relationship with our parents, so we want clarity as well.” 

McKinley also hopes lawmakers will consider setting aside funding next legislative session for the cameras. She says it costs an average of $32-35,000 to implement each camera, including the storage space that’s required.

“This is an unfunded mandate and it does cause a huge fiscal impact on districts and it would benefit the school districts if the legislatures could provide some fiscal support in implementing the cameras,” she said.

Advocates who testified Monday plan to send longer written testimonies to the Texas Education Agency as well. 

“Having the video cameras in there is kind of that monitor,” Broughal said. “It’s as much to protect a teacher as it is to protect the students so that the teacher’s protected against wrongful claims of abuse or neglect by a parent. It is for everybody’s benefit.” 

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