Nevada Bill Seeks Cameras in Special Ed Classrooms, Just as Texas Reworks Its First-in-the-Nation Law

Autistic and nonverbal, Olivia Espinoza’s son was unable to tell anybody about the abuse. While the disabled child was enrolled at an elementary school in Las Vegas in 2014, his special education teacher pushed and grabbed him, slapped his hands, and threw him to the ground.

“I have a typical daughter, and when she comes from school, I ask her, ‘What’s going on at school? What did you do?’ and she answers,” Espinoza said. “But when my son comes from school, I don’t know nothing about it.”

After at least three teachers aides spoke out, teacher James Doran pleaded guilty to battery — and Espinoza, who has sued the Clark County School District, is now calling on Nevada lawmakers to approve a bill requiring cameras in self-contained special education classrooms where more than half the students are nonverbal.

Proposed in March by Republican state Sen. Becky Harris, the bill would make Nevada the third state with such rules. Harris said she proposed the legislation after hearing from parents about abuse and noted that it would also protect teachers from false accusations as well as students.

“I do regularly hear from teachers that children throw things at other children, that sometimes children throw a temper tantrum and throw themselves on the floor, against a desk, or a chair, and mark themselves, and there’s no way to document what has happened,” she said.

Lindsay Anderson, government affairs director in the Washoe County School District, which last year paid two families $1.3 million after its disabled children were allegedly abused at school, said the legislation could benefit students as well as teachers who are wrongfully accused. Officially, however, the district opposes the legislation because it doesn’t provide state money to pay for the equipment.

In response to a request from The 74 for comment, the Clark County School District provided a transcript of officials’ testimony to lawmakers in which they noted the potential costs of the legislation, including equipment, maintenance, and storage for video footage.

But as Nevada debates the merits of the bill — including what it could mean for district finances and student privacy — the nation’s first law requiring cameras in special education classrooms, passed in 2015 in Texas, could be in for an overhaul.

Lone star

Like Nevada’s camera bill, Texas’s law began with a parent advocate. In 2006, Breggett Rideau’s son, who suffers from a significant cognitive disability, came home from Keller Middle School near Fort Worth with blood in his diaper. In the years to come, he’d suffer from a knot on his head, a dislocated knee, and a broken thumb.

After a school employee reported that the boy’s teacher hit him, yelled at him aggressively, and even ate part of his lunch, Rideau sued. In 2013, a federal court jury awarded the family a $1 million verdict, and Rideau began a campaign to have cameras placed in special education classrooms — a battle she won in 2015.

“Somebody abusing my baby, I can’t take it,” she said. “I’m thinking about these other children, and I’m like, ‘They’re sitting ducks for a predator. They’re just sitting ducks.’ There’s no one to tell any story about anything that happened to them at any time in that classroom but that teacher.’’

The Texas law, which went into effect this school year, requires districts to equip self-contained special education classrooms with cameras if a parent or school official requests them. Lawmakers in Georgia passed similar legislation last year, but under that law, participation by schools is voluntary.

In Texas, though, Attorney General Ken Paxton ruled in September that the bill means schools must install cameras in special education classrooms districtwide if they receive even a single request.

Calling it an “unfunded mandate,” Sarah Orman, a senior attorney at the Texas Association of School Boards, said districts have declared the costs unsustainable. Amarillo Independent School District officials, for example, said it would cost $500,000 to install and maintain surveillance equipment for all 75 classrooms.

Nicole Ray, a spokeswoman for the state’s third-largest school system, Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, near Houston, said it could cost $3 million to $5 million to install cameras in all special education classrooms there. While noting that cameras can offer “peace of mind” for families and educators, she said Paxton’s ruling is an opinion, so devices are being installed only in classrooms that relate to specific requests.

So far, the district has received 18 requests for cameras and installed 23 devices, since some students transition between rooms throughout the day.

Orman said districts have also struggled to manage expectations. Where cameras are in place, parents frequently request access to footage. “That’s a real issue, because it can eat up a lot of staff time to review those complaints and then review the footage and then determine whether there’s been an incident that would give the parents the right to view those videos,” she said.

A Keller Independent School District spokesman declined to comment on the law.

Not just a question of safety

Nationally, special education advocates appear split on the issue. A 2012 report from the National Autism Association argued that cameras in self-contained classrooms can help keep kids safe and ultimately save taxpayers money by providing clarity in abuse investigations. 

But TASH, a group that advocates on behalf of people with disabilities, said surveillance can have unintended consequences. In a 2015 white paper, the group reported that cameras can discourage efforts to mainstream special needs children in general education classrooms.

“Placing video cameras in these segregated settings has the potential to … increase the impetus to coerce parents to consent to placement in these settings through the rationale that they are ‘safest’ for their children,” according to the TASH report.

TASH also argues that the cameras can foster mistrust between teachers and students and move abuse to locations outside a camera’s reach.

Following Paxton’s opinion, Texas state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., a Democrat who proposed the original legislation, is scrambling for a fix. He proposed a new bill this year that, if approved, would limit cameras to the classrooms related to the specific request.

Lucio said Paxton’s interpretation “far exceeds legislative intent” of the original law. Limiting cameras to specific requests, he said, “will substantially reduce the cost to districts. That was their No. 1 issue and concern.”

But as districts move to comply with the law, Orman urged officials to avoid a “false sense of security” provided by the new equipment.

“If people really think there’s a bad actor in our schools, we need to know about that,” she said. “Hopefully, the administrators are able to address those concerns at the same time while they’re also working to install the cameras that they need to under the law.”

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