BATON ROUGE, La. — Before she was arrested for sending a secret recording device into a Livingston Parish high school in an attempt to protect her daughter with special needs, Amanda Carter’s family tried to get cameras installed in their child’s classroom, her husband said.
It’s part of a larger conversation in Louisiana about how to use classroom cameras to help parents safeguard children who can’t speak for themselves, while still respecting the privacy rights of teachers and other students.
A new law, which became effective June 17, requires school districts to develop policies and procedures for placing cameras in special education classrooms upon request — and to install those cameras if the money is available to do so. Other legislation last session provided state funding for such an initiative.
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“There really is no reason why any school system in the state should not have this policy in place and provide the cameras if requested,” said state Sen. Franklin Foil, who sponsored the legislation.
The idea behind the law is that children with special needs who have difficulty communicating can be monitored while in their self-contained classrooms so that parents and guardians are sure their children are safe. That includes students like Amanda Carter’s 17-year-old daughter, who was paralyzed on the left side of her body after suffering a stroke as a baby — she cannot speak and can only move short distances without a wheelchair.
Carter, 39, is accused of secretly recording conversations on a high school campus, then posting some of the recordings on social media. She was booked into the Livingston Parish Detention Center in late November on 20 counts of interception and disclosure of wire, electronic or oral communication — a felony.
Carter’s husband, Jesse, says his wife was trying to protect their child by affixing recording devices to their daughter’s wheelchair. They were concerned their child could be facing mistreatment after she came home with unexplained bruising. The school offered no answers, he said.
Jesse Carter said the family has attempted twice now to get a camera installed in their daughter’s classroom — first in February of this year, and then just last month, he said. He provided emails in which a central office employee with Livingston Parish schools denied their first request on the grounds they lacked funding.
After the new funding sources were allocated to school districts by the legislature, an education liaison on behalf of the Carters tried again to contact Livingston Parish administration in November, the emails showed — and they have received no response, he said.
“She never would have had to do it,” Jesse Carter said, in reference to his wife attaching the recording device to their child’s wheelchair. “If she felt there was a concern she (could have viewed the camera footage).”
Delia Taylor, spokesperson for Livingston Parish Public Schools declined to respond to questions about the camera requests, saying the school district cannot provide comment about specific students. The district recently implemented policies and procedures for the cameras — though Taylor said such devices have yet to be installed in any of their schools.
Families and disability rights advocates say students in special education classrooms face a range of challenges, from unenforced education plans to potential abuse. Representatives for teachers say they want to keep kids safe, and at the same time that there are privacy concerns to consider.
“We want to keep our kids safe,” said Cynthia Posey, legislative and political director for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. “We want to keep our schools safe, but I think we need to be careful and understand when we open this Pandora’s box — what are we really going to get?”
‘We need something to protect our kids’
Foil, a Baton Rouge Republican, said he first sponsored the initial version of the camera legislation several years ago when he was approached by parents with concerns about their children being abused in the special education self-contained classrooms. They were frustrated, he said, because when they tried to go to school personnel they said they weren’t getting help.
Parents told Foil, “‘We need something to protect our kids,’” he recalled. “‘So if something happens to our child, we’ll have a way to follow up’”
“Our hope was this would give parents some comfort and security, and it would also protect teachers as well, if there was another student abusing the child,” he added.
Foil said when the bill was initially passed, it lacked specific funding for the cameras. That legislation did not make the cameras mandatory until the school system was able to get dollars to put the policy in place.
“I found that some school districts, not only did they not have funding, but they were not putting together a plan,” he said. “That was not my intention.”
This summer’s bill addressed that problem, requiring a deadline for policies and procedures, with separate legislation that provided funding to the districts. If a school system fails to follow the new law, Foil said a parent whose request is denied could file a lawsuit to require the district to comply.
“We actually heard from a few parents who are pleased because it is working for them. Some have asked for guidance and what their rights are,” Foil said. “For the most part we have heard parents are getting what they need from the school system.”
A complex issue
For years parents with concerns about the treatment of their children with disabilities have advocated to have cameras placed in special education classrooms, according to Tory Rocca, director of public policy and community engagement with Disability Rights Louisiana.
He says their issue has been school systems haven’t implemented the plans quickly enough.
“They haven’t been satisfied with schools following through,” Rocca said. “They’ve been advocating for an update to the law for schools to implement the law.”
Rocca said there are sometimes problems with schools failing to implement specific individualized education plans for students with disabilities, and they have concerns about school personnel improperly restraining students or excluding them — even locking them in a room alone.
“We always need more resources for students with disabilities. It’s challenging,” he said. “Often, people don’t prioritize them.”
Posey, who spoke on behalf of Louisiana teachers, said any concerns they had with the legislation early on were addressed.
“I think any teacher would agree to protect students is first and foremost,” she said. “If there is indeed abuse happening in the classroom, that should not be happening. It’s kind of a double-edged sword as far as making sure we have the proper protective standards of privacy for students, and teachers and employees.”
She said there are important questions to consider in what leaders hope will be accomplished by adding cameras to classrooms — and if placing them there will meet that goal.
Foil said his hope is that by Jan. 1, 2023 the program will be “permanently in place moving forward,” ideally helping parents “to get some peace of mind that these cameras are in place.”
© 2022 The Advocate
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC
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