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Will classroom cameras protect students with special needs?

April 4, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
Because children with intellectual disabilities are the most vulnerable to abuse at school, Texas is the first state to require cameras in special education classrooms if requested by parents. But the current law has raised concerns about privacy as well as cost. Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza of Education Week reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: a look at whether having cameras in the classroom can protect children with disabilities, who can be targets for bullying and can be subject to abuse by teachers.

But cameras raise their own issues.

Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza with our partner Education Week traveled to Keller, Texas, to see how a recently-implemented law is playing out, and all this for our weekly series Making the Grade.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Breggett Rideau watches her son Terrence during his weekly therapy session. Horseback riding helps him improve his balance, muscle tone and confidence.

BREGGETT RIDEAU, Parent Advocate: I have never seen my son ride on a horse where he wasn’t smiling.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Terrence is 21, but, developmentally, he’s about 2 or 3.

BREGGETT RIDEAU: OK, this is a picture of little T. when he was just a few weeks old, a few days old. He came out smiling.

(LAUGHTER)

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Breggett says Terrence was always a happy little boy. Then, in middle school, he changed.

BREGGETT RIDEAU: He would cry out for no reason, just out — just cry out, tears. And I’m like, what’s wrong, babe? A stomach ache. I had no idea.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: There were unexplained injuries, a bump on his head, a broken thumb, a dislocated knee.

The Keller School District began investigating, and a classroom aide came forward to substantiate some of Breggett’s concerns.

BREGGETT RIDEAU: Everyone started telling me what that teacher had done. He had dropped him too many times to count. I found out that he had slammed little T. against the wall. I had no clue.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: The Rideaus were awarded a $1 million jury settlement. The Keller School District is appealing, and declined to speak to us for this story.

But Breggett wasn’t done. An aspiring jazz singer, she put her career on hold and began a campaign to install cameras in special education classrooms. She testified in front of the Texas House and Senate, saying cameras would have prevented the abuse.

BREGGETT RIDEAU: My child counts. Children like mine count, too.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: In 2015, Texas agreed. It became the first state in the country to require cameras in special education classrooms, if requested.

Ron Hager is with the National Disabilities Rights Network. He says children with intellectual disabilities are far more likely to be abused.

RON HAGER, National Disabilities Rights Network: Students with disabilities make up about 12 percent of the student population. They have been subjected to about 70 percent of the restraints and seclusions, so it’s a huge disparity. They are very vulnerable.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Ryder Warren is the superintendent of a nearby school district. He agrees with the law.

RYDER WARREN, Superintendent, Northwest Independent School District: The mantra of our school district is, we put kids first. My primary job is to protect children. And, right after that, my job is to protect the adults that are in the buildings, especially our classroom teachers.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Under the current law, teachers cannot opt out. Neither can parents of other children with special needs. This could lead to privacy concerns.

RYDER WARREN: That’s been an issue with some parents, that their need for their kids not to be under constant supervision with that camera. I have heard some comments about that. I have really not had any comments from teachers.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: The bigger issue for him is cost. Under the new law, if even one parent requests a camera, every special education classroom in the entire district has to have one.

RYDER WARREN: That would probably cost to the tune of over $600,000. That is just an astronomical time and expense.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: What would you say to the Texas legislature?

RYDER WARREN: Pay for it.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Adam Feind is in charge of technology for the district. The cost of cameras is just the start.

ADAM FEIND, Northwest Independent School District: A camera such as this costs about $800. However, when we look at the total cost of operation, we have to take into account the video storage, the wiring, the cable, the cost of installing, the cost of operations.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Samantha Crane is with the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. She opposes cameras in classrooms.

SAMANTHA CRANE, Autistic Self Advocacy Network: Parents can’t get access to that footage unless they know something’s happened. They have to be able to say, I would like footage from this day, and ideally from this particular time of the day.

So, parents might think everything is fine, everything’s being tape-recorded, but they’re still not getting the information they need to know, if their child is safe.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Crane worries abuse may go underground, and take resources away from education. Instead, several disability advocacy groups say they would rather see more special education students in mainstream classrooms, more teacher training, and more background checks for staff.

It isn’t clear whether cameras will actually protect students. A lot depends on how the technology is implemented and monitored. For example, last year, after the cameras were installed in Terrence’s classroom, Breggett Rideau noticed her son came home looking troubled, so she asked to review the footage.

Terrence starts choking, and then eight minutes of the tape is missing. Breggett believes the tape was manipulated, and is urging for systems that would protect the footage. Still, she believes cameras are the best way to protect children.

BREGGETT RIDEAU: Because it’s the only voice for a child that can’t talk. It’s, like, that simple.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: She spends her time helping other parents advocate.

BREGGETT RIDEAU: My phone was blowing up from Canada from Canada to Florida to North Carolina. We all have a child that’s vulnerable.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Breggett has gone back to work part-time, but takes her fight for her son’s safety along with her.

BREGGETT RIDEAU: I have a special-needs son who was hurt at school. It almost killed me, but I’m still here. So, this song right here I hope explains how I feel about it.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: The title? “Here’s to Life.”

BREGGETT RIDEAU (singing): I still have learned all you give is all you get, so give it all you got.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: I’m Kavitha Cardoza of Education Week, reporting from Keller, Texas, for the PBS NewsHour.

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