Video Surveillance of Special-Education Classrooms Raises Issues

The Texas Education Agency and legislators are now wrestling with issues surrounding Senate Bill 507, passed by Texas lawmakers last year in response to parental concerns about protecting students from incidents of abuse in special-education classrooms. The bill requires school districts, upon request of a parent, school trustee, or staff member, to install video cameras and record video and audio of activity in special-education classrooms and other special-education settings. Recordings must be kept for at least six months and must cover all areas of the classroom, but monitoring is prohibited for bathrooms or areas where a student’s clothes are changed. Also prohibited is the regular or continual monitoring of the video recordings. Videos cannot be used for teacher evaluation or any other purpose other than the promotion of student safety in special education.

Viewing is authorized for:

–a parent or guardian or school district employee who is “involved in an incident documented by the recording for which a complaint has been reported to the district on request of the employee, parent, or guardian“;

–“a peace officer, a school nurse, a district administrator trained in de-escalation and restraint techniques as provided by commissioner rule, or a human resources staff member designated by the board of trustees of the school district” (or the governing body of a state-created charter school) “in response to a complaint or an investigation of district or school personnel or a complaint of abuse committed by a student”; or

–“appropriate agency or State Board for Educator Certification personnel or agents as part of an investigation.”

The video recording also may be used by the latter two categories of viewers as the basis for notifying the state Department of Family and Protective Services of possible child abuse. Legal and human resources staff may be given access to the recording as well if it is believed to document a possible violation of district or school policy, and the recording may be used as part of a disciplinary action against district or school personnel “and shall be released at the request of the student’s parent or guardian in a legal proceeding.”

The video mandate of SB 507 takes effect starting next school year, and the Texas Education Agency is now working to develop proposed regulations to implement the law. The legislature provided no specific funding for this purpose, and school districts are anticipating costs of as much as several thousand dollars per classroom to procure and install video cameras and then to maintain them and securely store video recordings.

At a hearing on SB 507 today in McAllen before the Texas Senate Education Committee, Texas AFT legislative counsel Patty Quinzi testified regarding some of the many questions and issues relating to the implementation of this legislation. Much of the committee’s discussion focused on the apparently unintended consequence of language in SB 507 that indicates one request triggers the mandate of video cameras in every special-education classroom in a district, not just the classroom where a requesting parent’s child is assigned. Texas AFT’s testimony, laid out below, noted numerous other implementation issues as well:

Resorting to the use of video cameras as called for under SB 507 for the purpose of student safety in special-education classrooms is not an optimal solution. The best safeguard against abuse in the classroom is prevention, not after-the-fact accountability using video and audio recordings to document wrongful acts. Many educators and special-education advocates alike would tell you that resources would be better invested to address safety concerns through additional training for school personnel. And the best preventive measure of all, they also would tell you, is full staffing, so that there are multiple, well-trained professionals and paraprofessionals in the special-education classroom.

However, the legislature last session opted for video cameras, not for these other alternatives, and now we must deal with issues of implementation and interpretation of the law that was passed. It will be up to the legislature next session to decide if it is necessary to revisit this unprecedented law on videos in the special-education classroom.

Many questions and issues relating to implementation and interpretation of SB 507 have been reported by special-education teachers as they have examined this law. These include:

–Will funding for video cameras come out of already insufficient budgets for special-education instruction?

–How will districts securely store these confidential records?

–How will districts ensure that access to these video/audio recordings is limited only to the individuals and only for the purposes authorized by law? Will viewer logs be required to document that access is granted only to authorized individuals for authorized purposes?

–How will the privacy of students who are not the subject of an alleged incident be protected when a recording is to be released for viewing? Will districts be required to redact the images of these other students in the classroom? Isn’t there a federal FERPA issue here?

Educators welcome the provisions of SB 507 barring the use of video recordings for teacher evaluation and authorizing them to have access themselves to the videos if an alleged incident involves them. But other aspects of this law give many of them cause for concern.

Some are concerned that a parent could make spurious allegations of incidents indiscriminately, triggering access to and use of video recordings for a fishing expedition to search for footage that might be taken out of context and misinterpreted.

Some are concerned that the presence of video cameras could impede instruction, distracting some students or encouraging others to “act out” for the cameras.

Many of these types of concerns may or may not be allayed as experience with cameras becomes a matter of routine. But you should be aware, as you weigh your legislative responsibilities, that a significant number of special-education teachers are seriously offended by what they see as the assumption under SB 507 that special-education classroom teachers are routinely abusive. And many go further, like the teacher in Houston ISD who said: “If the cameras are in, I’m out.” We have to find a way to assure student safety without driving good, much-needed special-education teachers out of the classroom.

Texas AFT stands ready to work with the legislature and the Texas Education Agency to iron out issues under SB 507 requiring additional legislative and regulatory action. Thank you for considering our views.

Draft rules for implementation of SB 507 are expected to be published in several weeks by the Texas Education Agency. Texas AFT has been involved in stakeholder conversations with agency officials regarding the development of the rule proposal. Formal publication of proposed rules will trigger an opportunity for public comment and a possible public hearing at TEA. Look for further guidance soon from Texas AFT regarding opportunities to analyze and comment on the implementation of SB 507.