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Coming To Texas: Special-Ed Cams To Protect Students From Their Own Teachers

By now, we've all heard about how body cameras could prevent more police violence, or at least catch it in the act. But what about cameras to protect special-needs kids from their own teachers — and the teachers themselves from false accusations?

It'll be a reality soon in Texas. The Lone Star State passed a law in June that made it the first in the nation to make it mandatory for schools — if asked to do so — to videotape interactions between teachers and their special-needs students.

The law, which takes effect at the start of the next school year, applies to all of the state's public schools and charters, and to any self-contained classroom in which at least half the students receive special-ed services for at least half the day.

Not every school has to install one automatically or even at all. But districts are required to provide cameras if someone — say, a parent or school staff member — asks for them.

Here's the thing: There's no way for the parents of other students to opt out. Add to this the fact that school districts themselves will need to find the money for these cameras, and educators may face a Texas-sized headache for their budgets.

"Teachers are mixed, and the districts don't like the mandates," said Monty Exter, a lobbyist with the Austin-based Association of Texas Professional Educators.

Why Cameras?

The measure stems from an investigation last year, with NBC-5 in Dallas finding that some teachers had confined their students in so-called "calm rooms," closet-like spaces with doors and padding.

Some of these rooms had cameras. In one cringe-worthy video recording, a teacher forced an 8-year-old boy with autism inside a room, forced him to the floor and held the door shut despite his protests.

Just a handful of North Texas schools reportedly engaged in these practices, but the controversy spurred investigations and brought parents to the state capital to testify.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Texas, who sponsored the original bill, said he wanted to "give a voice to someone who could not speak up when they were abused at school."

Another benefit? Lucio says camera footage can protect everyone, including educators. "False accusations will not fall on good teachers," he added.

There are restrictions. The way the law is written, school districts can't use the footage to inform teacher evaluations. The cameras have to be capable of capturing audio and video, and they're forbidden in bathrooms.

Lucio says advocacy groups in other states are following the legislation closely, too.

Not Enough Money

The school districts themselves will likely need to pay for these cameras at a time when Texas consistently ranks near the bottom of states for public education spending.

"This is not a small expense," Exter said. For some schools, "it would cost millions of dollars."

Wait — millions? The Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education says yes, maybe so. According to the Austin-based advocacy group, camera installation, setup and storage costs could reach roughly $3,000 at minimum for every eligible classroom.

According to the group, school districts statewide could face millions of dollars in expenses if every eligible special education classroom received a camera.

That could be tougher for smaller districts, but it still means a lot of zeroes for the bigger ones. Districts in cities like Austin and Dallas could be forced to pay $1.6 million and $1.4 million, respectively, according to estimates provided by the council.

Here's why: When a district pays to monitor its classrooms, it won't just be buying the camera equipment. Schools will also need servers, microphones, archival capabilities, ceiling mounts, labor fees and so forth. And that's not even considering whether some rooms will need more than one camera.

"We have to figure out how to store the video and audio, and that's a very expensive thing to do," said Robbie Stinnett, a director of special education for Texas' Duncanville ISD.

Stinnett says she has already received requests for cameras from three parents, and that number could rise, considering the fact that she has a few dozen other camera-eligible classrooms.

Some critics say the law missed a bigger opportunity. Other solutions that they say could be proposed include: more on-the-job training, restraint-skills learning, and higher teacher salaries.

"Schools are stretched," Stinnett said. "If [a bill] becomes law, it needs to be funded, because public education isn't funded well enough to add stuff on top of it."

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