Disability community at odds on bill requiring cameras in special education classrooms

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This article was published on WMAR Baltimore by Mallory Sofastaii on March 18, 2021.

BALTIMORE — Parents and legislators are trying for a second time to get cameras in self-contained special education classrooms.

The bill stalled in the General Assembly last year and is facing similar push back this year.

The legislation aims to install cameras in self-contained special education classrooms to better protect students and teachers.

In a hearing in February, nearly a dozen parents testified about their child’s injuries at school. These students, most of whom are nonverbal and autistic, were unable to describe what happened, and the school didn’t provide answers.

“This here is Ashton and he came home with a bruise in the center of his back about the size of a fist, 4 inches tall, 2 inches wide, and you can see, there’s like a thumbprint on the top,” said Dustin Bane holding up a photo of his 7-year-old nonverbal autistic son. “To this day, I have no idea what happened to him.”

“That’s how swollen his head was from the side. You take a photo from the front and this is how he looked when they sent him home from school,” Katie Gandy told WMAR-2 News Mallory Sofastaii in 2019 after her 7-year-old nonverbal autistic son came home with a severe head injury and two black eyes.

“It is horrifying as a parent when your child comes home with damages to their body and to their self-esteem and to their mental health and they can’t tell you why,” said Rosemary Kitzinger, the parent of a child with autism during the February hearing.

“This is actually a 4-year-old who is in his very first month of Kindergarten,” said Delegate Michele Guyton (D-Baltimore County) and sponsor of House Bill 715.

Since Delegate Guyton introduced the bill last year, she continues to hear from parents about unexplained injuries including one as recent as two weeks ago.

“A nonverbal autistic child, he came home from school and his parents were giving him a bath and then saw he had burns up and down the back of his back. Neither the school or the child, because he was unable to speak for himself, were ever able to give an explanation or provide any resolution,” Guyton said.

Guyton and Lori Scott, the parent of a nonverbal child, believe cameras can tell the stories these kids can’t.

“This just gives us another set of eyes and surety in the classroom that if Cassidy were to come home, or any kid were to come home, with bruises or burns that if that camera was present and that action took place in the classroom, we would be able to view that and figure out what happened,” said Scott.

Budget and security concerns held up the bill last year. According to the fiscal note, the latest version is estimated to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to over a million dollars.

However, the cameras would be by request and can be paid for through fundraising.

Footage could only be viewed by administrators and law enforcement when an incident is reported.

“There’s no audio, it’s not going to be reviewed to monitor the teachers and assessing their skills as a teacher or not,” said Howard County State’s Attorney Rich Gibson.

Gibson said cameras could provide evidence of abuse or none at all.

“It provides the other side of it as well. It provides protection for the school and the teachers and provides protection for the kids and so that’s the reason why I’m supporting this bill,” said Gibson.

A coalition of more than 30 organizations advocating for students with disabilities still has questions about the implementation of the cameras and their value, which is giving legislators pause.

“The disability community is split first on whether the cameras have value but secondly on the cost. I think they’re worried if millions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent on cameras is that less money on services, is that less money to more instructional aid in the classroom?” said Delegate Anne Kaiser (D-Montgomery County), chair of the House Ways and Means committee.

When asked about the bill’s status, Delegate Kaiser said it likely won’t get through this year.

“So it’s a case of everyone agreeing with the problem, but not everyone agreeing with the solution,” said Kaiser.

In the meantime, parents continue to worry about what could happen without this added assurance.

“I get the fear, the guilt, the shame every day that I send him to school of not knowing if he’s being abused. I don’t have any other choices. I’m a single father and he’s owed a free and appropriate public education,” Bane said.

Three states currently have video camera legislation. They include Texas, Georgia, and West Virginia.

The Education Advocacy Coalition isn’t opposed to the bill but wants to see data and more information on how cameras are working in those states before taking a stance.

Click here to see their letter of information.

Delegate Guyton’s office said there was some opposition this year that they will be working to address in the interim. Delegate Guyton will look to reintroduce this bill next year.