Bill before legislature seeks cameras in special-needs classrooms

La La Dunson often wondered what a typical school day was like for her 10-year-old son, who can’t speak because of autism and cerebral palsy.

At times, Landon had come home with unexplained scratches or bruises.

“As a parent, you want to know how this happens,” said the Hampton mother of six. “What do parents do when they want to know what’s happening to their kids who can’t talk? You have no idea how it feels to be at work sitting around at lunch thinking about what’s going on with your child.”

Day care centers have cameras that act as watchdogs. So do busy intersections and interstates, as well as large retailers. Why not classrooms with special-needs students? It’s a question Dunson posed to Rep. Valencia Stovall, D-Lake City.

Now Georgia lawmakers could take up the issue during the General Assembly’s 2016 session, which began Monday.

House Bill 614 — also known as the Landon Dunson Act — was introduced late during the last session and now sits in the House Education subcommittee. The bill which has drawn concern from a state teachers’ organization — is sponsored by Stovall, as well as Representatives Buzz Brockway, R-Lawrenceville; Sandra Scott, D-Rex; Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson; and Margaret Kaiser, D-Atlanta. If passed, the legislation would create a pilot program to install video cameras in classrooms with special-needs students. It is modeled after similar legislation that passed in Texas in July.

“We don’t have anything in Georgia that says you can or cannot have cameras,” Stovall said. “So the idea is open and possible.”

Though she could find no definitive statistics on how many children are hurt in school-related incidents, Stovall said she decided to pursue legislation after talking with Dunson and learning of cases involving injured special-needs children.

Stovall doesn’t see the bill as Big Brother intrusion, but rather a safety measure that protects students and teachers. If passed, HB 614 would create a pilot program to put video-monitoring equipment in classrooms in select school districts. That equipment could be used to monitor classroom activity and for safety measures in select school districts, according to Kenyette Barnes, a legislative strategist and lead lobbyist on the bill.

In addition, Stovall said in-class cameras could serve as a teaching tool for educators. She discussed the bill at a pre-legislative town hall meeting at Clayton State University last Saturday.

But a spokesman for the largest teachers’ group in Georgia expressed concerns about the bill.

“The No. 1 concern is privacy, especially (as it relates to) the restrictions within special education, ” said Craig Harper, a spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which has 90,000 members.

Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, schools are restricted from sharing a student’s educational record with anyone other than the student or parent, Harper said. The issue becomes even more critical when it involves special-needs students, he added. The bill calls for cameras to monitor the entire classroom not just individuals. Therefore, any incident that occurs would involve everyone in the class — not just a specific student — and then parents of all of the students would need to be contacted in order for that video to be viewed by someone other than school or law enforcement officials, Harper said.

“Parents can’t use (cameras) to keep an eye on the classroom,” Harper said. “It’s not a real-time feed that the general public could access. It would mainly be for documentation purposes only because of the privacy issue.”

Privacy concerns have been addressed in the current draft of the legislation, Barnes said. The amended legislation gives instructions as to who has access to the video and says the videos can be released for law-enforcement purposes.

Privacy aside, Harper said installing and managing such a system could be costly, especially considering the bill calls for recordings to be kept for at least a year.

“Videodata storage is storage intensive,” he said. “It’s one more things schools would have to keep up with.”

“The positive part (of the bill is) it’s not mandated. It authorizes the Department of Education to do a pilot program.”

Nonetheless, Ronald Hatcher believes in-class cameras may have helped his son, Aaron, who died March 19, 2011. In a lawsuit, Hatcher alleges his son’s death was caused by complications stemming from repeated physical abuse in school. Aaron, who was 18, couldn’t walk or talk because he had cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy.

“We started noticing bruises on his arm and neck,” Hatcher told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The case involving his son is still in litigation, he said.

Hatcher suffered a heart attack shortly after his son’s death. He said one of his other children is in therapy to deal with her brother’s death.

“If there were cameras in the classroom, the abuse would not have occurred,” said Hatcher, who lives in Norcross. “It would protect the student and the teacher. Aaron couldn’t talk but the cameras could speak for him.”

Dunson is still getting used to the idea of a bill being named after her son Landon, which she says stands for Learning A New Direction of Normal.

“This is not just for the kids. It’s for the teachers,” said Dunson, who spoke to the Clayton school board and attorneys in her quest to get in-classroom cameras. “I would feel wonderful knowing that mothers and fathers will not have the fear of the unknown anymore.”

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