Mission Consolidated Independent School District board of trustee members are being asked to consider spending approximately $600,000 to place video and audio recording devices in some classrooms where students receive special education instruction with about a third of that amount already approved. In addition, board members are considering a proposal to put live video streaming on some district school buses.
Nearly two years ago legislative hearings were held in Austin where parents of special needs children voiced concerns to lawmakers their children were being abused in public schools but there was no evidence to prove it. In response to those concerns, and some high profile media reports of special education students being abused in schools by employees, in May 2015 Texas lawmakers passed Senate Bill 507 that requires public schools to place video surveillance recording cameras in all classrooms where special education instruction occurs, if requested by a parent, trustee or school staff member. The law, which was sponsored by Democratic Texas State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville, went into effect at the beginning of the current school year, applies to school districts and open enrollment charter schools receiving public funding.
At a Jan. 18 Mission Consolidated Independent School District board of trustee committee meeting Superintendent Ricardo Lopez said the district is going to take a more proactive approach and place video recording cameras in all self-contained classrooms and other special education settings where special education students receive instruction.
Self-contained classroom is a term of art used by education professionals to describe classrooms designated for special education instruction with smaller student-teacher ratios containing only special education students and certified special education teachers. Per the statute the recordings would remain confidential unless they become part of an investigation.
At least one request has been made for a camera in a special education classroom in the school district, said district spokesman, Craig Verley.
According to Roosevelt Rios, the district’s purchasing coordinator, in Oct. 2016 the district solicited proposals for surveillance cameras and audio recording devices. Among the lowest bidders were American Surveillance, Inc. of Brownsville and Safeguard Security of Mission.
On Jan. 25 district staff was given approval to enter into negotiations with Safeguard Security, which bid $95,300. The results of those negotiations are expected to be presented for the board’s consideration at its Feb. 22 meeting, Verley said.
The expenditure would pay for 60 cameras to be placed in 27 classrooms or self-contained units, said Verley. Depending on the areas there are several cameras in a classroom or unit, Verley said.
There will also be a second round of bids for cameras in special education resource areas that will require an additional 49 cameras. The phase two of the project is being bid separately at a later date, Verley said. During the Jan. 18 committee meeting Rumalda Ruiz, assistant superintendent for finance, said the district has budgeted $300,000 for phase two of the project.
On Jan. 25 the board approved spending $212,662 for servers for the recording devices. Ruiz said the purchase would be made using the Texas Department of Information Resource’s inter-local purchase co-op.
Though it is still in the planning stages, in addition to some classrooms the district is looking into installing cameras on special education and team travel busses that would allow live video streaming to persons with qualified access.
“Currently if there’s something that happens on the bus it’s after the fact; you have to take out the tape,” Superintendent Lopez told the district’s Facilities/Environment Committee Jan. 18. Lopez asked district staff to research the costs further and once the cost of putting of cameras on busses was more clear the issue would be brought back to the board for consideration.
Whether or not school districts were required to put cameras in all special ed classrooms became a concern as the Texas Education Agency began writing regulations to implement the law, said Janna Lilly, director of the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education. The council represents about 1,000 special education administrators in Texas where statewide there are approximately 440,000 special education students, she said.
Lilly was one of 22 persons who testified for the bill before the Texas Senate Education Committee in April 2015. In an interview Wednesday she said Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s opinion released in September 2016, stating if one person asks for a camera in their classroom the district must place cameras in all special education classrooms district wide, was contrary to the intent of the law which was to require cameras only in classrooms where the request had originated. She said the attorney general’s ruling on what amounts to an unfunded mandate has put district’s in a funding quandary.
According to the Texas Classroom Teacher’s Association the attorney general’s ruling will likely strike a significant blow to school districts, many of which have advocated for a more narrow interpretation of the law, meaning one request, one classroom. Based on the TCAA’s estimates, providing, operating and maintaining cameras in all district special education classrooms would cost between $3,500 and $5,500 per classroom, with district-wide costs ranging from $350,000 to $6.8 million.
Lilly said some district’s have opted to wait to see if Sen. Lucio follows through on his promise to rewrite the bill in order to circumvent the AG’s opinion. In the meantime she said districts are taking a varying approach to implementing the law.
“Some are following legislative intent because Senator Lucio is already talking about refilling the bill so that it more closely meets the intent,” Lilly said. “So some districts are implementing one request equals one classroom hoping that the bill will be changed before the end of [school year] 16-17. Some, and it sounds like in Mission, are taking a more proactive step and saying, ‘We’re just going to do it.”