I-Team: Controversial bill could add cameras to classrooms with special needs students

Local News

Some local parents of special needs students claim their children are being mistreated in school, and that they’re having a hard time getting answers from school staff when they ask them about it.  So now legislation is being introduced in the Nevada State Legislature to put cameras in the classrooms of special needs students.  

But the issue is controversial. The I-Team did some digging to find out why.

Six-year-old Iker has special needs and is non-verbal. So when he came home one day from school with injuries, he was unable to tell his dad Francisco Flores what happened.

Vanessa Murphy, I-Team Reporter: “You still don’t know about the wound on the arm?”
Francisco Flores: “Umm… Mm….”
Vanessa Murphy: “You still don’t know what happened about him losing a tooth?”
Francisco Flores:  (Shakes his head no.)
Vanessa Murphy: “And you still don’t know what those two marks are on his back?”
Francisco Flores: “No.” 

Over the past six months, the I-Team has interviewed several parents, and they all have dealt with the same problem.

“We found out that the abuse wasn’t just one time,” said Josh Wahrer, parent.

“There is two different stories,” said Ebony Williams, parent.

“I was feeling guilty because I was taking her to school, and I don’t know that she was going to be safe,” said Betzaida Hill, parent.

Their children with special needs like Autism can’t express what’s happening at school, and the parents suspect they’re being mistreated. They say they’re not getting answers from staff.

“I think it’s time,” said State Senator Scott Hammond, R-NV.

Sen. Hammond wants cameras in classrooms, so the Republican is co-sponsoring a bill with State Senator Mo Dennis, a Democrat — to make it a requirement in public school classes where more than 50 percent of the students have special needs.

A similar bill was introduced in 2017, but it was never voted on.

“Perhaps it was politics, and perhaps it was some people worried about the cost, but we’ll find out come this session,” Hammond said. “Other than that, I don’t know what could have prevented it because it’s needed.  It’s necessary now.”

Senator Hammond’s bill does not yet specify a cost.

“We do have concerns about unfunded mandates, and we know that cameras in classrooms will cost millions of dollars,” said Kirsten Searer, a spokesperson for the Clark County School District.

“We also have some legal concerns as well because it’s not just about the one student and concern,” Searer said. “There are privacy concerns for the staff members in the classroom, for the other students in the classroom.”

Marianne Lanuti is an attorney who has represented families of special needs students.

“In my opinion, the only thing the school district is protecting is themselves,” Lanuti said.

The I-Team has learned since 2015 alone, CCSD has spent more than $1.9 million on lawsuits the district has settled involving special needs students. That money comes from taxpayer dollars.

Vanessa Murphy, Reporter: “Could the cost be offset with litigation and cameras?”  
Kirsten Searer, CCSD spokesperson: “Well, I think that’s something we could look at, but I think that you can’t underestimate the cost of these cameras.” 

Searer acknowledges the district is seeing an increase in litigation surrounding special needs students.

“I think even with say a camera in a classroom one could argue that maybe the cost would be even higher,” said John Vellardita, with the Clark County Education Association.  “Because a camera might reveal things in litigation that has some kind of financial value to it.”

Vellardita is the executive director of the Clark County Education Association which represents teachers. He suggests using money that would pay for cameras to instead hire more special ed teachers.

He says he has three main concerns about the legislation:

“Privacy issue, due process issue, and fiscal impact,” Vellardita said.

Vanessa Murphy:  “If everything is happening in the classroom as it should be, what’s the problem with having the cameras?”  
John Vellardita:  “Well, one I think you should ask a parent because we’ve heard loud and clear from parents that they don’t want their child being videotaped without their permission.” 

But parents the I-Team spoke with said they do want the cameras.

Vanessa Murphy: “What would you say to parents of children who are non-verbal and can’t speak about what may have happened to them at school; who say having these cameras is a no-brainer?”
John Vellardita: “I think they have a good point. It’s very hard to disagree with them.” 

Both the union and the district say they’re open to talking about cameras in special needs classrooms, but they also admit it’s an idea that is controversial.  But to the parents the I-Team spoke with, the cameras mean one thing: Safety for their children.

The I-Team also reached out to the Nevada State Education Association union to get its take because it represents school staff, but a response was not received.

CCSD informed the I-Team Thursday evening that the district is estimating the cost of the cameras in special needs classrooms to be 12.5 million on average per school year.

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