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Cameras in Special Education Classrooms

Last fall, Greenville ISD made headlines after a 7-year-old autistic boy accused his teacher of shoving him into a wall hard enough to bloody his lip. After an internal investigation — and the airing of the story on statewide news outlets — the teacher was placed on administrative leave.  

It’s incidents like this and the ones that NBC 5 uncovered during an investigation of “calm rooms” last year (some North Texas teachers were allegedly confining children inside and holding the door shut despite the child’s protests) that provoked a new law that goes into effect this school year. 

The measure is meant to protect kids with special needs from their teachers — and the teachers from false accusations. 

And for moms like Christy Zartler, it’s definitely a step in the right direction to keep students safe. Her 16-year-old daughter has cerebral palsy and is a student at J.J. Pearce High School in the Richardson ISD. “My daughter is completely nonverbal, has severe aggressive behaviors and is therefore at a high risk for abuse,” Zartler says.

You see, when her daughter becomes agitated or is in pain, she starts punching herself first, but if someone else intervenes, she grabs fingers, hands or arms with her mouth, bites down and won’t let go. Last year, Zartler’s daughter came home on three separate occasions with bruises on her arms and back. The teen’s teacher admitted to restraining the 98-pound child and no further actions were taken. 

The new Texas law, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, mandates schools to videotape interactions between teachers and their special education students. It applies to all public schools and open-enrollment charter schools and to any self-contained classroom in which at least half the students receive special education services for at least half the school day. It requires that every area of the classroom be covered (except bathrooms and areas where kids change clothes; so multiple cameras that record both audio and video might be necessary in some classrooms.

Not every school has to install the cameras right away or even at all. It’s only if districts are asked that they are then required to comply. So, who can request a camera and how do they do so? At this stage, the who is easier to answer than the how. The short list includes parents, teachers, school staffers and school board trustees. How to make the request is to be determined by each district and many are still formulating their guidelines, so check with your child’s principal if you want cameras installed in a classroom. 

Unfortunately for parents concerned with privacy, there’s no opt-out option to prevent your child from being recorded. However, the law does limit the list of those who have access to the video. Obviously, it includes the parents and school employees involved in an incident, but it also allows police officers, nurses, district staff trained in de-escalation and restraint techniques and potentially state authorities such as the Department of Family and Protective Services to view the footage if necessary. 

And who’s footing the bill for all of this? The state didn’t allocate any funding for the program, so individual districts will pick up the tab. 

But it involves more than just purchasing a few cameras. 

“We’ve had cameras in most of our classrooms, including special education classrooms, for some time now,” explains Lesley Range-Stanton, executive director for communications for Plano ISD. “But the biggest difference we have to make [to our existing system] is the length of time this footage is stored in classrooms where requests have been made.”

Right now, Plano schools do archive feeds from 7 – 20 day but will now need to store footage for a six-month minimum in the classrooms where requests are made. On top of the camera equipment that districts will have to purchase, schools will need secure servers too. 

Camera installation, setup and storage costs vary widely. Tanya Browne, executive director of special education for Dallas ISD has gotten estimates somewhere between $1,800 and $2,000 per classroom, while Paula Long, executive director of educational support services for Arlington ISD projects the initial setup for one classroom to cost more than $14,000 with each subsequent classroom (up to five) running $850. Both districts have already received requests for cameras.

All of the districts we spoke with — even those without any current requests — budgeted funds for the equipment this year.

“What the law doesn’t account for is future costs,” Browne says. “The life of the camera and other equipment might be five years. We’ve allocated money for the initial setup, but there are still a lot of questions regarding future costs for replacements and repairs.”