Once again, our state legislators have failed our most vulnerable children, killing a bill that would have required cameras to be installed in special education classrooms.
Introduced for the third straight year, the bill would have required installing cameras in all self-contained special ed classrooms over the next two years.
Lori Scott, vice president of The Arc Maryland and a leading advocate for the legislation, told News-Post reporter Jillian Atelsek that the House of Delegates “murdered the bill” by changing it to a pilot program for just 10 schools before passing the amended version 128-4. That stripped-down version never got a hearing in the state Senate.
Scott and other proponents argued that the bill would protect vulnerable students, who often can’t speak up if they experience abuse or neglect at school, and would protect teachers from false allegations of misconduct.
The Maryland State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union and one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Annapolis, took a publicly neutral stance, but its allies were active in stopping the bill. As is common with troublesome bills, this one died in committee.
Sen. Paul Pinsky, chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, told our reporter that concerns about the bill’s potential impact on teachers influenced his decision not to give it a hearing.
The Prince George’s County Democrat argued that classroom footage “could be seen in isolation and be taken out of context” to unfairly persecute teachers. He said school principals could observe classrooms “anytime they want” and that abusive behavior would be “seen in a pattern.”
We just don’t buy that. The best evidence of any mistreatment would be a video. Teachers are on their best behavior when a principal visits their classroom, as would any employee being watched by their boss.
As Lori Scott told our reporter when the bill was first introduced in January: “We have cameras everywhere else in schools — hallways, vestibules, common areas, front offices, cafeterias, gyms. But we don’t have cameras in classrooms, and these kids certainly need a voice. They can’t come home and talk to their parents about their day.”
To be fair, the teachers’ protectors were not the only opponents. The Maryland Association of Boards of Education argued that the costs of maintaining and reviewing the footage would be unsustainable for many districts. And the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said the “intent was laudable,” but cameras could exacerbate existing disparities in school discipline.
Nonetheless, we believe the cameras are needed to help parents know for certain how their special education children — many of whom have limited or no communication skills — are being treated in school.
The cameras would also show the challenges facing special ed teachers, and how well almost all of them respond to those challenges. Special ed teachers and aides are among our most caring and committed educators.
A camera in the special ed classroom is analogous to body cameras on police officers, now required by state law. When those were introduced, many police officers hated them and expected they would lead to second-guessing.
Instead, officers now realize that the cameras almost always show that they are acting properly. We believe the same would hold true for teachers.
Because of the recent scandal in treatment of special needs children in Frederick County, when an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found excessive use of restraint and seclusion, the need for classroom cameras may be greater here than anywhere else in the state.
FCPS was badly tarnished by the DOJ report. It must do whatever it can to regain the trust of special ed parents and the community at large.
Thankfully, the Board of Education has recognized that. It endorsed the bill and indicated it would install cameras even without a state mandate. Now is the time for the board to follow through and get this project moving.