DALLAS — The Dallas ISD will be among the first major school districts in the nation to require cameras in all special education classrooms to ensure student safety.

Children who don’t have the ability to speak because of severe disabilities can’t explain to parents or teachers what happened if they are hurt at school. That makes it difficult to determine if an injury was an accident or intentional or if anyone else was involved.

Now Dallas ISD trustees have decided to install cameras to help school officials find out what happened in a classroom should an incident arise.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The school board recently voted 7-2 to require the video recording. The move was over the objections of Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, who noted officials could not find another district in Texas or nationally that uses cameras in all special education settings.

“The administration does not recommend approving this item,” said Hinojosa, who balked at the idea, noting the high cost and few times families have requested to review such video.

Texas law already requires public schools to place cameras in self-contained special education settings if a parent, staff member or school trustee requests one. The timeline for installing them in every special education classroom across Dallas ISD has not been set yet.

District administrators noted that under the new policy parents will not be able to opt-out of a special education classroom if they don’t want their child under surveillance. The state law does not allow for opting out; however, administrators said they could move students to another class under the current setup if someone were to object.

Since the state law went into effect, Dallas ISD has equipped 56 special education classrooms with cameras. There have been 11 requests for reviews of recordings.

Trustee Joyce Foreman, who voted against the measure, said she is concerned about families not having a say.

“There has to be a balance between the parents who want it and the parents who don’t,” she said.

However, families surveyed this school year by the district overwhelmingly supported installing cameras in the classroom. The survey found that 75.6 percent of English-speaking parents and 90.5 percent of Spanish-speaking parents support the use of cameras.

The survey found that 70 percent of special education teachers opposed the district’s camera mandate. Of those who responded, 28 percent said they would look for jobs elsewhere if Dallas ISD requires their use.

That’s mostly because they fear administrators will misuse the recordings for appraisals, said Rena Honea, president of the Alliance-AFT teachers association in Dallas. That’s not allowed under the law; a review of video can only be done when a specific complaint is reported to the district.

“There are supposed to be protocols to go through and only certain people see it,” Honea said. “But there is a fear that that’s what will happen to them, so it’s not worth the additional stress for many teachers.”

But board members said the cameras could exonerate teachers falsely accused of mistreating students. They noted previous examples where that happened.

“This program will provide protection for our employees, but more importantly, it will provide protection for our students,” said trustee Dan Micciche, who added that everyone tends to be on better behavior if they know they are being recorded.

Officials said it would cost about $3.5 million to get all 479 classrooms equipped with the right infrastructure and to cover storage fees for the recordings. The policy states that recordings wouldn’t take place in blended classrooms where students with disabilities are in general education settings with other students.

Administrators estimate the surveillance would cost about $1.5 annually. State law, which went into effect in the 2016-17 school year, gives parents and staff the right to review recordings of specific incidents. The recordings are not available to the general public.

Dustin Rynders, supervising attorney with Disability Rights Texas, said special education advocates lobbied to have cameras in classrooms because of horrific stories of children being abused or injured.

For example, he said recently that his group worked with a family whose child had been restrained improperly with both hands zip tied behind his back, which resulted in a broken bone. The staff member involved hadn’t been trained on appropriate ways to restrain a student if the child is a harm to himself or others, Rynders said.

“We know that special education students are those primarily involved in restraints at schools, which has the risks of injury or even death,” he said. “A recording is an important part of the process to review what happened — not only to point out when something went wrong but also to go back and see how can we improve things or do better if a similar situation happened again.”

He also noted how his group has found that often, official narratives written by district officials about a situation don’t match up with what a recording later reveals.

“Employees may feel strange, but we’re often under video surveillance by just walking down the street or going to the grocery store,” Rynders said. “Students deserve the protections that they have by having the cameras.”

As part of their research into camera use, Dallas ISD officials surveyed districts across the state and country including in Austin, Houston, Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Miami-Dade, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. None of the 42 districts that responded had a policy or procedure that mandated cameras in special education classrooms.

Trustee Dustin Marshall pushed for expanding the use of cameras in Dallas ISD after meeting with an advisory group of special education stakeholders.

The new camera policy was adopted on the same day trustees were updated on the district’s efforts to ensure that all students who qualify for special education services are receiving them.

Texas recently came under fire when federal investigators found that state practices essentially encouraged districts to limit the number of students they enrolled in special education to about 8.5 percent of their enrollment.

Dallas ISD officials said stepped up efforts in the district have seen special education enrollment rise to about 10 percent of the student population.

Research has repeatedly found that students are often over-identified for special education. Officials noted that a new data tool allows them to spot trends and concerns sooner. For example, research shows black male students are greatly overrepresented in special education, often identified as having emotional disturbance conditions.

Dallas ISD administrators said they are working to see what district practices or underlying biases might account for enrollment being high for some children.

© 2020 The Dallas Morning News
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC