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.

"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 ABCNews.com. "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."

Gelser said she understands the frustrations of families, but can see why schools might be reluctant to undergo the constant supervision.

"I worry about issues of privacy in terms of filming people. Many of us don't like the idea of being filmed," she said. "I understand why people are raising the issue. These families are desperate and there are very few choices that are left to them."

Her National Council on Disability is the independent federal agency that recommends disability policy to the president, Congress and all other federal agencies.

Whether cameras in classrooms will be a solution parents and educators agree on, it is clear to all parties involved that something must be done to protect special-needs children.

"We shouldn't be putting the onus on the parents to become Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew to figure out what's going on during the school day," Gelser said. "No one should have to protect their child from school."

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