Starting in the 2016-17 school year, Texas became the only state in the country to require schools to install cameras in self-contained special education classrooms at the request of parents, teachers or school board members.
School districts in Texas have been interpreting the law to mean that if parents or teachers make a request, a camera would be installed in their children’s classrooms or in the classrooms in which they teach. The legislators who drafted the bill said that was what they meant, as well, according to a letter they wrote last year after the camera bill passed.
But the Texas attorney general has said that his interpretation is that a single request means that cameras have to be installed in special education classrooms districtwide. Complying with such a request might cost school districts millions—and Texas education officials have already said that this is a cost that must be borne by districts alone.
Attorney General Ken Paxton’s assessment of the new law was made at the request of Mike Morath, the Texas education commissioner. In question is the interpretation of this part of the classroom camera law:
In order to promote student safety on request by a parent, trustee, or staff member, a school district or open-enrollment charter school shall provide equipment, including a video camera, to each school in the district or each charter school campus in which a student receiving special education services in a self-contained classroom is enrolled.
Cameras Must Be Installed in All Special Education Classrooms
“Nothing in the plain language of [the statute] suggests that a parent, trustee or staff member’s request is limited to or results in the provision of equipment to only a single classroom,” Paxton wrote. “To the contrary, the legislature has required that upon receiving a request, a school district shall provide the equipment not to a single classroom but “to each school in the district” providing special education services.
The lawmakers who sponsored the camera bill, state Reps. Eddie Lucio, Jr. and Senfronia Thompson, say that’s not what they meant. In a letter, they wrote that their legislative intent was that “a request by a teacher or parent/guardian to install cameras requires installation only in the classroom where the teacher offers instruction or the child/dependent attends class. This ensures protections in special education environments while responsibly containing costs for large districts.”
But that letter is not relevant, Paxton said. Legislators are bound by the words they vote into law, not post-enactment letters.
Breggett Rideau of Keller, Texas, fought for years for the camera bill after her son, Terrance, was injured by a special education teacher. She cheered Paxton’s interpretation of the law.
“These children are the most vulnerable citizens of the United States,” she said. School “should be a safe place.” Rideau ended up winning a $1 million judgment against the 35,000-student Keller district. School officials had been informed by another staff member that Terrance had been shoved and kicked by the teacher but did not report it to his parents until two years later.
At the request of parents, the Keller district has installed six cameras at a cost of $2,500 to $3,000, plus ongoing costs for data storage. The entire district has about 120 self-contained classrooms, said Amanda Bigbee, the Keller district’s staff attorney.
The attorney general’s interpretation represents “a paralyzing financial burden, to be honest,” Bigbee said. “I suspect we’re going to take a deep breath and see what the [Texas Education Agency] has to say.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.