The Case for Cameras in the Classrooms
As an autism mom, I am painfully aware of the constant abuse stories involving school staff and children with disabilities. Not a week goes by where a disgusting account of abuse isn’t reported in the news. Be it duct taping a student, handcuffing, restraining, secluding, paddling/beating, verbally or physically abusing children, the deluge of attacks on special needs children in schools never seems to cease.
And while reading in the news that a child has been abused in school is heartbreaking, nothing can quite compare to finding out that a teacher has put their hands on your child. When my son was in Kindergarten, a note came home one day informing me that the occupational therapist had grabbed my son so hard that she left marks on him and that he had been sent to the nurse. Fast forward five years to when my son is in fifth grade, parents discovered that the principal built and used seclusion rooms..over the course of months, without informing parents, interim superintendent or school board. What happened in those cases? What were the repercussions? Parents were able to get rid of the seclusion rooms, but from a personnel perspective, nothing really changed. The occupational therapist kept her job in the same school that year, and the principal who built the rooms is at the same elementary school to this day. So should anyone ever wonder why this issue is near and dear to my heart, I know first hand what can and does happen in schools. I've spoken to parents whose kids have been abused. And I've spoken to adults who were restrained, secluded and/or abused in school, and believe me, seclusion and restraint has the ability to traumatize humans. These children grow up into adults who remember what was done to them in school.
As a result of my personal experiences and advocating for others, I am strong supporter of Senate Bill 2020, the Keeping All Children Safe Act, which would protect children from the abuses of seclusion and restraint. But at the end of the day, even if the Congress and Senate ever get around to passing it, it still does not go far enough to protect our kids. The bottom line is that it will always be the word of a school system against the word of a child. Unfortunately, even the physical and emotional scars and bruises that speak to the abuse are not enough to convince authorities. Children who are non-verbal or have communication limitations are even more vulnerable, and their lack of communication makes it even more difficult to prove the abuse occurred. Special needs children are at a disadvantage; they aren’t believed and are often blamed for the abuse.
Even in states where there are stronger laws in favor of positive behavior support, which is researched based, as opposed to seclusion and restraint, which are not researched based, all the school needs to do is say that the child was “a danger to himself or others”. That simple catch phrase, “a danger to himself or others”, gives the school free will to restrain and seclude a child as much as they want. Without evidence, authorities often take the word of the “professionals” when an alleged abuse incident occurs.
The fact is that we cannot trust all adults in schools to tell the truth when it comes to abuse. It would be great if we could, but “trust” is not enough these days. Week after week, special needs children get abused, in one form or another, and these children deserve more than what they are getting.
The only way to limit abuse in schools and document evidence is to videotape in all school settings. Notice, I write “limit abuse”. Truly, there are people in school systems, as I type, who do not deserve to be working with children. Sure, there will be some abusers, who will find a way to abuse, regardless of the cameras. They may not be able to stop their mouths from spewing hateful words, or they may try to find a way to circumvent the cameras. But clearly, videotaping will go a long way to reduce the amount of abuse and bullying that is going on in schools these days, for both special education and neurotypical children. When people know their behavior and words are being monitored, they are more likely to do the right thing.
What About My Privacy???
What I find interesting is that when "cameras in classrooms” is put on the table as a viable option; schools get up in arms about privacy. I believe that this is an invalid argument given that school staff (including but not limited to teachers, aides, bus drivers and administrators) are taxpayer-paid positions. In any paid position, as an individual, you make a decision to accept the terms and conditions of that job. And if videotape monitoring is part of the job description, you as an individual, have the option to take the job or leave it. But you do not get a say about whether the videotaping actually happens. Employees, who work in all kinds of other industries, including government, are routinely videotaped, recorded, internet monitored, etc. Why should education be any different?
The privacy of students, while a concern, should not be a show stopper. Technology managers have ways of securely storing data so that it remains confidential. Laws should determine how and when data is released, (i.e. data is only released to a parent via written request and data is only for their child’s classroom). If and when laws are passed requiring videotaping in schools, parents know that there will need to be strong language requiring schools to keep data in a manner in which it cannot be tampered with, stolen, or conveniently “lost”. In addition, parents must have reasonable access to the data, similar to other school records. The entire reason why parents are pushing for videotaping is because schools have shown that they cannot always be trusted to “do the right thing” and not cover up incidents that occur in school settings. So it is clear, that there will need to be structure around laws that protect the students, teachers and schools when it comes to how the data is stored and shared.
Saving money. Saving children’s lives.
Another argument against video cameras is the cost for implementing them. This should is only a factor in schools which do not have cameras already installed, as some schools already do have cameras. Given the exuberant amount of money that districts spend on special education legal fees, staff time, lawsuits and settlement agreements, video cameras have the potential to reduce these costs.
Evidence is evidence. It can be used to prove what did happen, but also can be used to prove what did not happen. Therefore, districts can also use the data to show how they are appropriately managing behavior and implementing FAPE. Administration can also use this information to monitor staff performance as well as to make improvements across all school settings should they identify pervasive problems or, conversely, strategies that would positively affect all students.
Cost of such programs would definitely need to be evaluated. But given the potential for evidence to exonerate schools from accusations, there is the potential that videotaping will reduce lawsuits and settlements. If school staff stops abusing children, the money spent on settlements from such incidents will also be reduced. Plus, schools will have evidence when deciding which teachers are most effective as opposed to keeping or moving around less than adequate teachers.
States Passing Laws, Getting Ready for the Future…Like it or not.
Parents in several states, from Wyoming to Florida to Ohio are currently working on passing laws to require videotaping. I am thrilled that these parents are advocating for this approach. It should be noted that some districts already have cameras in classrooms, but laws still would need to be created about how data is stored and shared with parents.
Again, while I very much support Senate Bill 2020, it appears that certain legislators are stalling or reluctant to pass it. First, there is the issue of states’ rights. In this particular case, if states were capable of passing laws by themselves, doing the right thing and protecting special needs children, they would have done it already. Many states still beat children via paddling and regularly seclude and restrain children with no legal ramifications. There many states that simply have no laws regarding seclusion, restraint or aversives. And even states with laws, like Pennsylvania, schools can always use their “catch phrase” like a “get out of jail free card” in Monopoly.
Another reason why Senate Bill 2020 doesn’t seem to be moving is because the school administrators’ lobby comes out in full force when you start talking about limiting restraint and eliminating seclusion. And they aren’t the only group not in favor of Senate Bill 2020. I had the opportunity over the summer to go down to DC to talk with legislators about Senate Bill 2020. On a visit to my local Congressman, the aide actually told us that schools “don’t really hurt the children or grab them”; they just “put their hands on them a little”. Seriously, it made me ill to hear him say the words. In fact, I am sure the autistic child I spoke to on the phone six months ago whose face had been badly injured with a concussion, broken nose, etc. during one of his "regular restraints" would not agree that school staff does not "put their hands on kids just a little". No, it doesn't always happen that way. Anyone who has ever seen a child restrained, and most kids who are restrained and secluded are in elementary school by the way, know full well that it has the potential to be a violent process that often ends up with several adults piling onto a small child and/or dragging them into a prison-like seclusion room. Not effective. Not therapeutic. Not researched based. Yet, it is traumatic for the child and often for the adults as well.
Oh, and I would be remiss not to mention that there are positive alternatives to seclusion and restraint that do work. There are schools, who teach children with serious behaviors, who do NOT seclude and restraint. Everytime, I hear that argument that a school “needs” to seclude children, it is terribly upsetting given that this is not true. With the correct staff development in researched based strategies and culture change, schools can work towards reducing restraint and eliminating seclusion.
In lieu of Senate Bill 2020, which may or may not come to fruition within the next year, I believe parents do have a shot at getting videotaping bills passed. Granted, it will have to be state by state, again because of the states’ rights issue. But nothing speaks louder that evidence. It is what it is. That is why banks, casinos, and other businesses that have valuable assets use videotapes. They do it because they know they cannot simply trust their employees, nor can they trust their customers.
The Bottom Line
We should not be asking ourselves, “Should we have cameras in school classrooms?” We should be asking ourselves, “Why do we not have cameras in classrooms?” Our children are our MOST valuable asset that we as parents and this country have, so why are we not protecting them? There will be special needs children who grow up and change the face of this earth; they could possibly be the next Einstein or Newton. Can we afford to risk having them demeaned, injured or killed at the hands of school staff? Can we afford not to videotape? Can we afford not to have evidence in our hands when we are capable of implementing this technology? No, we cannot. We must implement videotaping, and I for one, will be celebrating when the first law gets passed.
References and Informational Sites
Families Against Seclusion and Restraint
A Terrifying Way to Discipline Children, New York Times, 2012
Students Traumatized in Special Education Across America, Seclusion, Restraint, and Aversives
Restraint and Seclusion (APRAIS)