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


"I think what we see is the tip of the iceberg," she said. "When you're dealing with kids who can't talk or who have very low verbal skills and you're seeing this amount of reporting, it seems to me that there are more parents out there who aren't discovering it."

The National Association of Special Education Teachers did not respond to request for comment, but the association's executive director, George Giuliani, has expressed uneasiness with the perceived rise in parents' using audio and video equipment to make their own secret recordings. He indicated that it might be time to consider a more formal method of supervision, according to The Associated Press.

"In classrooms where children are nonverbal, unable to communicate, defenseless, we should start to have a discussion of whether cameras in the classroom are necessary," Giuliani told the AP in April.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) did not immediately respond to request for comment, but its Virginia branch supported earlier this year a pending state bill that would prohibit closed-circuit cameras in schools to monitor students, "unless it is necessary to protect the physical safety and security of students."

As for the parents who discover any abuse, the fight is tough. Without evidence, it is often the disabled child's word versus a school's denial. Kelly said that when parents don't have photographs or video of the alleged abuse, there is often not much they can do.

"I'm absolutely a proponent of cameras in the classroom," she said. "I think when you have many vulnerable children together, it provides safety not only for the children, but for the staff. Accusations can go both ways."

Kelly said that case law has shown that privacy rights do not extend to the classroom. Many common spaces in schools, like cafeterias, have cameras, as do school buses. She said case law has only shown that cameras are prohibited in areas such as bathrooms and locker rooms.

"Schools are very hesitant to look for abuse because it opens them up to potential litigation," Kelly said. "They don't want to open that can of worms so they just deny, deny, deny."

Kelly acknowledges that while abuse is never the answer, teachers and schools are faced with a "perfect storm in education" of increasingly challenging factors including overcrowding in classrooms, diminished resources and low pay.

"I think that's what's leading to a meltdown," she said.

The abuse stories that make it into headlines are often the ones where parents take on the role of detective and expose the abuse with video or audio recordings.

A New Jersey dad who suspected something was "horrifyingly wrong" at school when his autistic son began acting violently had the boy wear a digital recorder and discovered teachers verbally abusing him.

When the dad, Stuart Chaifetz, listened to the recordings, he heard the teacher and aide calling his son Akian names, making fun of him, yelling at him and having inappropriate conversations in front of the children.

"He's the best human being I've ever met and these people were taking it away because they were crushing his spirit," Chaifetz said of his son. "If I had not spoken out and released that video, it would have been like it never happened, except to Akian because it happened to him and he knows it."

School officials were "shocked and horrified" by the audio, Chaifetz said. The aide was fired but the tenured teacher could not be fired and was moved to another school.

Chaifetz has received thousands of emails of support, many of which have been from parents' pushing for cameras in classrooms, which Chaifetz supports.

"Nobody wants anyone to see what's going on in some of these rooms," Chaifetz told "Let's stop just saying that schools are about the kids and let's actually make them about the kids. It's not going to hurt anyone that's doing a good job."

But not everyone is so certain that cameras in the classroom are the way to go, and Sara Gelser of the National Council on Disability calls the push for cameras in classrooms "a symptom of a larger problem."

"I don't know that cameras in the classroom themselves are the answer to the problem," Gelser said. "I think what we really need to be looking at is better regulation."

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