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1.24.22 – SIW – By Jillian Atelsek Source The Frederick News-Post, Md.

Critics say move would be a costly burden on local school systems, could pose a threat to student privacy

For the third year in a row, lawmakers and advocates are pushing a bill that would require public schools across the state to install security cameras in special education classrooms.

House Bill 226 would only apply to self-contained special education classrooms, which are designated specifically for students with special needs and staffed with certified special educators. Proponents say the move would protect vulnerable students, who often are unable to speak up if they experience abuse or neglect at school.

They also contend the footage could protect instructors who face false allegations.

Opponents, however, maintain that installing the cameras and keeping tabs on the footage would be a costly burden on local school systems. Some argue it would pose a threat to student privacy, while others say the surveillance would be unfair to teachers, who may feel their methods were under constant scrutiny from administrators.

“This isn’t about judging teachers or evaluating teachers on how they’re teaching,” said Del. Michele Guyton (D- Baltimore County), who is sponsoring the legislation. “This is about catching those very, very few really, really bad apples in the school system who do actually hurt children.”

The Maryland State Education Association — the statewide group of teachers’ unions — has no position on this year’s bill, spokesperson Patti Mullins wrote in an email.

Lori Scott, vice president of The Arc Maryland, brought the idea for the bill to Guyton in 2019 after her nonverbal daughter was paired with an aide who was previously suspended and accused of physically assaulting a different student.

The district later terminated the aide, Scott said, but she remained concerned.

“We have cameras everywhere else in schools — hallways, vestibules, common areas, front offices, cafeterias, gyms,” Scott said. “But we don’t have cameras in classrooms, and these kids certainly need a voice. They can’t come home and talk to their parents about their day.”

The language in the initial version of the bill, introduced during the 2020 legislative session, “wasn’t great,” Scott admitted — it didn’t make a clear enough distinction between self-contained special education classrooms and any classroom that houses a special education student. Installing cameras according to the latter definition would be a much steeper task for local school boards.

But the bill has been strengthened significantly in the two years since, Scott and Guyton said. In addition to the “self-contained” provision, they’ve clarified things including where the footage will be stored, for how long, and who is allowed to view it.

Though Guyton said it was “heartbreaking” to watch the legislation fail two years in a row, she expressed hope that this year would be different. She’s seen a groundswell of community support that wasn’t there before, she said.

“I think this is the year for this bill,” Guyton said. “We’ve worked really, really hard with advocates who had questions about the bill last year to try to address their concerns and rewrite portions of the bill they weren’t incredibly happy with.”

In the aftermath of a Department of Justice investigation that found Frederick County Public Schools illegally restrained students with disabilities, Scott said, House Bill 226 takes on added significance. Several local parents told The Frederick News-Post that they weren’t aware their children had been hurt by the district’s disciplinary practices because the student struggled with communication or was entirely nonverbal.

“Wouldn’t cameras have been nice in many of those settings?” Scott said.

In 2015, Texas became the first state to implement comprehensive legislation governing the use of cameras in special education settings. Georgia and West Virginia followed suit in 2016 and 2019, respectively. Legislators in Louisiana, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, Florida, Arkansas and Nevada have all proposed similar laws that are either pending or were shot down.

The specifics of the three enacted laws vary widely.

In Texas, cameras can only be installed after a request from a parent, staffer or administrator.

In Georgia, while the law gives school systems the ability to install cameras, it doesn’t force them to.

West Virginia mandates cameras, but only requires school districts to review the footage if they receive a request to do so. Advocates there are currently fighting to strengthen the law by adding a provision that schools must review pieces of the footage at least every 90 days.

As it’s currently written, the Maryland law would begin to take effect during the 2022-23 school year, Scott said, with 50 percent of self-contained special education classrooms getting a camera that year and the other half getting one the next year. The footage would be kept in the district’s central office. It could be erased after three months if the school didn’t receive a request to review a certain tape, and the district would be required to erase it after six months unless it pertained to an ongoing investigation.

The cameras would not record any bathroom areas or areas that students use to change clothing.

In a fiscal note submitted last year, FCPS estimated it would cost $270,300 to install the equipment in its roughly 125 self-contained special education classrooms.

Dustin Bane, the parent of a nonverbal autistic child enrolled in FCPS, became a staunch advocate for the bill after he said his son returned from school one day in 2019 with a new four-inch bruise on his back.

To this day, he said, he’s troubled by the fact that he has no idea what happened. Having cameras in his child’s classroom would put his mind at ease, Bane said — but it would also benefit his teachers, who Bane said are, by and large, “wonderful people that have big hearts and are here to help.”

“The school system will try and pit teachers against parents, and that’s not the true situation,” Bane said.

House Bill 226 is set for a hearing in the Ways and Means committee on Feb. 3 at 1 p.m.

Follow Jillian Atelsek on Twitter: @jillian_atelsek


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