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Texas’ special needs classrooms will soon be on video. Is this good for kids?

The move aims to protect special needs students, many of whom are people of color.

A new law in Texas will require school districts to install video cameras in special education classrooms at the request of any parent, teacher, or school staff — potentially the first law of its kind in the nation. The law is part of a broader trend toward more video surveillance in schools. And, like other new uses of video surveillance, this one gains support from a desire to protect vulnerable populations. But as with other surveillance methods, its true impact may be hard to predict.

The law comes after a series of grim reports revealed abuse of special education students in Texas. As the Texas Observer reported, parents recently testified before the Texas Senate Education Committee that their children had been “locked in closets, slapped, burned, yelled at, and beaten until their knees were dislocated and their thumbs broken.” Reports of such abuse in special education classrooms are not unique to Texas: A 2009 Government Accountability Office report “uncovered widespread abuse of techniques used to restrain or discipline special-education students in U.S. schools.” Texas special education advocates believe the new law will help protect students who are at risk of being abused, and protect teachers from wrongful accusations.

Body-worn cameras have appeared on the uniforms of school resource officers from Tennessee to Kansas, and are making their way onto the suits of school administrators and principals in Iowa. The introduction of body-worn cameras concerned advocates in both instances. While the new Texas cameras are likely to be fixed in place rather than body-worn, their introduction is nevertheless part of the same underlying trend of greater video surveillance in schools. And that trend, no matter how well-intentioned, deserves scrutiny from advocates.

This Texas law is part of a broader trend toward more video surveillance in schools.

It’s important to understand who is being surveilled and in what context: Students of color are overrepresented in special education programs nationally, relative to their numbers in the general student population. For example, in its annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Department of Education found that African American students aged 6-21 are about 1.5 times more likely to receive special education services than other students. In Texas, according to 2011-2012 public school enrollment statistics, though African Americans account for 12.8% of the total student population in Texas, they account for 16.5% of the special education student population.

Under the new Texas law, cameras will be introduced across a school district as soon as one parent or teacher in that district requests them, so they are very likely to be deployed throughout the state. The cameras must cover “all areas of the classroom or other special education setting.” In addition to cameras, the law also requires audio recording of the bathrooms and any areas where students change clothes. These recordings will be confidential and will only be made available under certain circumstances to employees, parents who make complaints, and child protective services. The videos won’t be used in routine teacher evaluations.

Video surveillance like this pits two different needs against each other. On the one hand, there’s an interest in creating a comprehensive video record so we can hold bad actors accountable for harming children. On the other hand, this new measure subjects teachers and students to potentially constant scrutiny, creating an undertone of stress, anxiety, and fear.

Our experience with body-worn cameras should be instructive: video surveillance isn't simple.

Recent experiences with the deployment of body-worn cameras may be instructive. Many observers initially believed that body-worn cameras could create accountability and build trust between law enforcement and communities. But accomplishing that goal is proving far more complex than just deploying the cameras. Instead, detailed policies balancing accountability, access, and privacy have to be developed, and unintended consequences — like an emerging phenomenon of police officers “playing to the camera” to manipulate footage — may yet prove centrally important.

If our experience with body-worn cameras and other surveillance methods teaches us anything, it is that video surveillance is not a simple solution. The true impact of video cameras in special education classrooms remains to be seen.

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