Are classroom cameras the best way to protect students with special needs?

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The images of abuse are disturbing.  Students with special needs have suffered bruises, scrapes and even a severed finger allegedly from the hands of educators.

School is supposed to be a sanctuary, a safe place where trusting children learn and grow.  But some parents of students with special needs fear it’s anything but safe.

It seemed unthinkable to Nate Searcy.

His 8-year-old daughter Shaylyn, who has Down Syndrome, was sent home from school with her shoes duct taped to her ankles.

“She couldn’t even walk,” said Nate Searcy, Shaylyn’s father. “She was kind of limping down the aisle.  I didn’t know what was going on.  She had duct tape on her shoes.  Are you serious?  I had to literally pick her up and carry her off the bus.”

Her parents said sometimes Shaylyn didn’t want to wear her shoes at school but her parents were horrified to see they were forced on her feet.

“They could have done something else and then sent her home like that, like we’re not going to have a problem with it,” Searcy said.

When it happened, I asked the Wayne Township School District why duct tape was in the classroom in the first place.

“That is a very good question,” said Wayne Township Spokeswoman Mary Lang.  “That is something we would never think would be used, especially when it comes to anything dealing with a child so that’s a question that’s part of the investigation.”

But now, Nate Searcy wonders what’s happening in the special needs classrooms that he doesn’t see.

“Makes me think what other things are they doing or what have they don’t that we don’t know about?” he said.

Stuart Chaifetz is one father took matters into his own hands.  His son, Akian, has Autism. Stuart planted a recording device on Akian to tape his teacher.

The recording devastated him.  He posted his heartbreak on YouTube.

You can hear the teacher telling Akian, “Go ahead and scream, because guess what? You’re going to get nothing until your mouth is shut.”

Then later she can be heard saying, “Oh, Akian, you are a bastard.”

Chaifetz couldn’t believe it.

“You called my son a bastard, you made him cry,” he said. “What kind of sick twisted person does that to a 10-year-old boy?”

Stories like Akian’s recording and Shaylyn’s duct taped feet started a Facebook movement demanding cameras in special needs classrooms nationwide.

“And you think, wow, in this day and age I can’t believe that’s going on,” said Lisa Wells, Executive Director of Down Syndrome Indiana.

Wells said she will never forget how people reacted to the news of the duct tape incident in her office.

“Why wasn’t that educator arrested?” she said.  “Why wasn’t that educator arrested? And simply put, it wasn’t against the law.”

Now, Wells believes cameras in special needs classrooms should be mandated in Indiana schools.  Cameras are in school buses, so why not classrooms?

“If you have a nonverbal student, especially that is experiencing any type of abuse in a classroom, now you have something truly documenting what is going on,” she said.

Wells said the cameras will also protect the teachers.

“This is a way for you to show what a great job you are doing,” she said.

Not all educators agree, though.

“I would say I’m not for cameras in the classroom,” said Mary Rosswurm, Executive Director of the Little Star Center in Carmel.

She helps children with Autism and believes the cameras would interfere with the therapy.

“I think if you know a camera is watching, always looking for something to go wrong, I think it really might stifle some people and their creativity, you know, just their willingness just to engage and be silly with the child,” she said.

Rosswurm said the teachers need to be held accountable to their peers.

“When the child got their feet duct taped, weren’t there other people in the room who might have said, ‘Hey that’s probably not a great idea’?” she said.  “How come nobody else is stepping forward? I think that’s just as alarming.”

Even if not everyone supports cameras in the classroom being the eyes and ears for students with special needs, everyone agrees this needs to stop happening to the most vulnerable students in school who should be celebrating milestones, mainstreaming and creating memories.

Many say the teachers need to be held accountable.  Right now, Texas leads the way to get cameras in special needs classrooms.  Texas Senate Bill 1380 passed in the Senate and it’s expected to pass in the House, making the cameras mandatory in special needs classrooms in the 2013-2014 school year.

Indiana students with special needs just got a little more protection this week when Senate Bill 345 was signed into law.  It was authored by State Senator Randy Head.  It limits and modifies the use of seclusion and restraint techniques on Indiana students.  He said if that doesn’t change the culture he will consider a bill that would put cameras in special needs classroom in Indiana.

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