Can cameras protect special-needs kids from abuse? - FOX 26 News | MyFoxHouston

Can cameras protect special-needs kids from abuse?

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In a world where every child needs protection, Hailey Penny will always need more than most.

She trusts everyone, without condition, especially her parents and her teachers.

But by fall 2010, the once perpetually cheerful 10-year-old had spent months fearful and deeply withdrawn.

"We were at our wits end.  We were literally racking our brains, in tears wondering, what's going on with our child, you know?" recalled David Penny, Hailey's father.

On an afternoon the Pennys will never forget, the "cause" came home on the body of their disabled child in the form of scrapes and heavy bruising.  They were injuries, an investigation quickly confirmed, that were inflicted by a teacher's aide in Hailey's New Caney ISD Special Needs classroom.

"It hurt me," Hailey said before hiding her face in her hands.

"If I was to put bruises and marks on my child like that or any child for that matter, they would put me in jail.  I would be in jail for child abuse! How are they any different?" asked David.

But in this case, the teacher's aide who hurt Hailey walked away.  Montgomery County prosecutors claim they lacked evidence to convince a grand jury, the kind of proof that could have come from a surveillance camera if the classroom had just had one.

"They need to be in the classrooms where the children can't defend themselves, in classrooms where a child is not able to come home and say 'Mommy, Daddy, so and so is hurting me'," said David Penny.
FOX 26 has learned the same aide was reprimanded for mistreating Hailey and other disabled students just five months before, and yet New Caney ISD failed to tell the Pennys of the alleged abuse or to install surveillance to insure it didn't happen again.

Hailey's mistreatment is hardly isolated.  Over the past year, FOX 26 has uncovered a half dozen cases in the Houston area alone in which disabled kids, isolated in self-contained public school classrooms have been persecuted or preyed upon by the very people who are supposed to protect them.

In Fort Bend ISD, a nine-year-old autistic student was repeatedly imprisoned in a closed filing cabinet by her special-ed teacher.

The same, now former educator at Juan Seguin Elementary stands accused of kicking, striking and verbally abusing other disabled kids.

The classroom had no camera.

"All we can say is this teacher broke our hearts," said Juana Sapon, the victim's mother.

At Deer Park ISD's Fairmount Middle School, a special education teacher disciplined an autistic boy with spray bottle blasts to the face at point-blank range.

Witnesses say the same educator mocked and physically abused other deeply disabled students, none of whom were capable of crying out.

The classroom where it all happened had no camera.

"The fact of the matter is cameras are the only thing that are going to protect our kids.  You know the truth.  You see from a camera exactly what happened, exactly what happened," said Kevin Graham, father of the student mistreated at Fairmount.

And then there's Katy ISD's Exley Elementary from where Leah Sullivan's deeply autistic son William came home with multiple bruises and abrasions but no explanation from the school.

His special ed teacher was quietly reprimanded for causing the injuries but allowed to remain in the classroom.

No camera was deployed.

"It's a rude awakening that, wow, that the people you trust with your children, you can't trust.  It's not there anymore, it's not ever going to be there," said Sullivan.

Two months later, at the very same school, the same special-ed teacher and two aides were fired after whistleblowers reported the trio forcing vinegar soaked cotton balls in the mouths of autistic students as a form of discipline.

Criminal charges were filed and later dismissed when Fort Bend County prosecutors couldn't convince a grand jury to indict.

Again, no surveillance video was available for review.

"You have to ask yourself, why don't they want them?  Why don't they want us to see what's happening in the classrooms," said Leslie Phillips, mother of an autistic son and board member of the National Autism Association.

Phillips says Texas school districts have no credible excuse for prohibiting cameras.

"It's like throwing kerosene on a fire and expecting it not to burn.  If you put poorly trained teachers and aides in these classrooms with children who have these challenges and nobody to watch out for them," said Phillips.

Licensed school psychologist and child advocate Loretta Zyas-Revai has spent years within Houston schools and believes cameras can prevent the kind of special-ed tragedy that's become far too common.

"What happens in those classrooms is, you can't begin to even figure it out, from abuse to neglect to ignore them, the punishments you know all kinds of crazy things that the law, forget about human kindness, forget about all that, that the law does not allow," said Zyas-Revai.

So why is it in 21st century America, a world in which nearly everyone is under some kind of surveillance, that those who run our public schools believe their most vulnerable students should be purposely denied this protection?

Attorney Chris Tritico represents both school districts and Houston's teacher's union and argues it's unfair to surveil thousands of educators to prevent the misconduct of a few.

"There are a lot of things that happen in that classroom that are not abusive, that are protected by law for the teacher to do, that they have every right to do, but a parent might say, 'I don't like that.' Doesn't make it wrong.  It doesn't make it illegal and it shouldn't give us the right to monitor that teacher every minute they are in the classroom," Tritico said.

"When you put cameras in all of these classrooms, where these teachers have been teaching 20 to 25 years, what you say is, ‘I don't trust you anymore, so I'm going to monitor you every minute'," Tritico added.

Tritico concedes teachers in Texas have no legal right to privacy in the classroom, a fact confirmed by University of Houston Law professor Peter Linzer who says even federal laws designed to protect the privacy of students do not prohibit cameras in the classroom.

"There is no privacy right here, particularly if the parents approve of it (surveillance)," said Linzer.

In addition, Linzer points to section 26.009 of the Texas Education Code which expressly allows the videotaping of students without parental approval for the purpose of child "safety."

"Even if a bad teacher gets on his best behavior, at least we stopped the bad teacher from doing bad things, so I believe the school districts are using an excuse.  I don't believe they have a leg to stand on," said Linzer
And yet Tritico knows of not a single public school district in Texas that's deployed cameras to protect disabled kids.

Special needs advocate Louis Geigerman, who has fought for families in dozens of special-ed abuse cases, believes he knows exactly why.

"They are protecting the institution and not the child," said Geigerman.

A blanket policy that's made the injuries suffered by disabled kids like Hailey Penny acceptable collateral damage and leaving parents of special needs victims feeling both helpless and betrayed.
"I don't trust anybody anymore," said David Penny.

Their continuing question: how many voiceless kids could a camera save from harm?

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