Should Every Special Education Classroom Be Recorded?
DALLAS — Children with severe disabilities often don’t have the ability to speak up when they are hurt at school, so determining what happened can be difficult.
That’s why one Dallas Independent School District trustee wants to require each special education classroom in the district to have video cameras. Texas public schools are already required to place one in a special education setting if a parent requests it.
Installing cameras districtwide would help protect the most vulnerable kids in DISD and even protect teachers if they are falsely accused of wrongdoing, trustee Dustin Marshall said.
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“Much like cameras on cops’ equipment allow us to hold the cop accountable, it also provides protection for the police officer, much like this would provide protection for the teacher when nothing inappropriate has actually happened,” Marshall said.
But DISD administrators are concerned that doing so would be too expensive and could even drive teachers away.
The school board debated Marshall’s idea at a recent board briefing. The trustee plans to bring the proposal up for a vote soon, though no date has been set.
Starting with the 2016-17 school year, Texas law requires districts to place a camera in special education settings if a parent, staff member or school trustee requests one. The law also allows parents to review the video.
The law came after various reports of children being abused or mistreated while at school.
This month, DISD trustees are expected to vote on updating existing policy to allow for expedited review of video recordings if a complaint arises. The updated policy also would require principals to provide advance written notice to staff and parents before a camera is deactivated so they have an opportunity to request continued surveillance.
Texas has come under federal investigation for its special education practices in recent years. This summer, a federal report questioned whether schools nationwide were accurately reporting when students were being placed in restraints or seclusion, disciplinary tactics that disproportionately affect students with disabilities.
Last school year, disability advocates regularly attended DISD meetings, speaking out on various concerns, including student safety.
Marshall had an advisory group of special education stakeholders offer him recommendations for DISD improvements. The concerns he heard prompted him to support installing cameras across the district in special education classrooms.
Of the district’s 479 special education classrooms, 32 have active cameras. Another 24 have cameras that are not currently active. DISD has had 11 requests to view video since the law took effect.
Officials estimate that each camera costs $5,000 to $7,000 to install. That pricing could push implementation across the district to close to $3 million. Annual storage costs for archiving video — which must be maintained for at least three months — would be about $1.5 million, according to DISD estimates.
Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said he doesn’t support putting cameras in every special education classroom, in part because the per student costs would be dramatic. Self-contained special education classrooms typically have eight to 13 students. He noted the district was criticized for spending too much money on a summer program to help some students catch up academically.
Hinojosa also noted how few requests for video review there had been, compared to the hundreds of classrooms that predominantly serve students in special education.
“And this is to be sitting back and waiting if we actually need this or not? … We’re going to sit back and passively spend all of this money on something that may have no impact on academic outcomes?” Hinojosa said.
Other administrators noted that the district was trying to do a better job of letting parents know that they can request cameras in special education classrooms. For example, the information will now be included in some parent packets.
The district deactivates a camera once a child whose parent requested it is no longer in that classroom because some families aren’t comfortable with ongoing recordings, administrators say.
But Marshall countered that the requests for reviewing video aren’t so small when stacked up against how many classrooms actually had the cameras.
DISD had cameras in 22 classrooms last school year and 23 the year before that, according to district records. Since 2016, 56 individual classrooms have had cameras at some point, Marshall said.
Trustee Edwin Flores said he was concerned about how staff would feel if DISD mandated cameras in the classrooms. Districts are typically scrambling to find enough special education teachers to meet their needs.
“How many of those folks would we lose?” Flores said. “It’s important to bear in mind that we’re talking about people that are hard to find to begin with.”
Marshall said the cameras would also protect staff. He noted that the district has had complaints — whether founded or unfounded — from parents concerned that their child was mistreated at school. Without video evidence, officials can’t always determine what happened.
Trustee Dan Micciche said he wanted more information about what the best practices are nationally from districts known for doing a great job with special education.
“Special ed is an area where there is a crisis in terms of the confidence that the public has in our ability to serve special ed kids well,” Micciche said.
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