Cameras in the Classroom a Crusade for Parents of Special-Needs Kids

PHOTO: Tara Heidinger, the mother of an 8 year old moderately autistic son, Corey, who is seen in this undated handout photo, has started a petition on Change.org to push for cameras in the classrooms of students with disabilities.
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A grassroots movement to put cameras in classrooms, driven by the parents of special-needs students, is simmering across the country. It's a personal crusade for many of the parents who say their children have suffered abuse at the hands of teachers and classroom aides with unsatisfying consequences.

Parents in states such as Ohio, Texas, Michigan, New Jersey and Tennessee have taken to the Internet to promote their cause with petitions, videos, Facebook pages and letters to the president. Many of their children either cannot speak or have difficulty with verbal communication.

Tara Heidinger describes son Corey, 8, as "the happiest boy in the world." He loves all sports -- basketball is his favorite -- and is quick to beat most of the video games he gets. He's shy around kids, but comfortable around adults.

He is also autistic and can become "hysterical" if faced with change in his schedule or day-to-day routine in their hometown of Lakewood, Ohio.

When Corey arrived home from school May 10, he was "very sad," Heidinger said.

"He's usually happy and joyous, but this day he was very sad and he said, 'The teacher [was] mean to me,'" Heidinger said. "I really didn't think anything of it because teachers can tend to be 'mean' to get their point across."

But later on, some of Corey's more verbal classmates told Heidinger that the teacher's aide had "grabbed Corey by the arm really hard" and "screamed in his face" to stop his crying when he became upset.

Heidinger, 34, said Corey had visible marks on his skin from an alleged physical and verbal assault, so she went to the school and confronted the principal.

"I was scared out of my mind. She didn't believe the story I was telling her," Heidinger said. "They tried to say the boys made up the story, that it could be their autism."

When school officials told Heidinger there was no proof of the alleged attack, she asked whether they had cameras in the classrooms or in the hallways. The answer was no.

"There should be cameras in these classrooms because so many of these children don't speak at all," she said. "Any safety issues for children should override any privacy issues for staff."

So Heidinger decided to take matters into her own hands and make it her personal mission to get cameras in the classroom, focusing first on classrooms with children who cannot speak or who have low verbal communication abilities.

She sent a letter to President Obama and she has about 4,000 supporters between her Change.org petition and her Facebook page.

Florida psychologist and special education attorney Katie Kelly has been in frequent contact with Heidinger, calling her a "relentless" advocate for the cause.

Kelly is the mother of a child with Asperger's syndrome and represents many clients whose special-needs children have been abused at school. "It's just horror story after horror story," Kelly said.

She is contacted several times a month by parents from across the country who say their developmentally challenged children have been abused physically, verbally or sexually.

The parents are connecting online and slowly organizing their cause.

"This movement has come directly from parents who have been affected by having their children be abused at school," Kelly said. "One by one, in different states, people have seen that and it's resonated in them and they've taken up the call.

"There's a national dream that all families are happy and all schools and classrooms are happy and you really don't want to open the door and see that it's really ugly in there," she said.

Google alerts on Kelly's computer for abuse stories are "a daily occurrence" and she is continually "stunned" at how many cases are reported, as well as the ones she imagines are not reported.

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