‘My Daughter Was Covered in Welts’: A Mom’s Fight for Cameras in Classrooms
Children with disabilities suffer abuse by teachers at a much higher rate than typical kids. And when they’re non-verbal, parents are left wondering what happened.
In June, Texas became the first state in the U.S. to require cameras in certain classrooms—specifically those that serve primarily students with special needs. Now, parents in other states across the country are clamoring for similar laws, including this mom in Kentucky who has over 70,000 signatures on her Change.org petition.
According to the petition, Kristen Wilcox’s daughter Shelby—who is non-verbal—came home from school “covered in welts.” Wilcox found out Shelby had been restrained in a “wooden high chair,” and that she was no longer receiving a modified curriculum. Instead, she was expected to “process advanced concepts like fractions, rhombuses, and photosynthesis.” Shelby, as her mother explains, doesn’t fully comprehend the alphabet, numbers, or shapes.
Study after study has shown that children with disabilities suffer abuse, restraint, and isolation at the hands of their educators at a much higher rate than typical children. A 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office sketches both the breadth and depth of the problem. Children with disabilities—some as young as 6 years old—are locked in dark rooms, tied to chairs, and restrained with duct tape.
In one case, a 13-year-old with ADHD who had expressed suicidal desires was confined in isolation. His teachers returned to find he had hanged himself. A 7-year-old died after being held in a prone restraint position for hours. One 9-year-old was brought to a time-out room and restrained using what the teacher referred to as a “basket hold.” He began retching and eventually died in his teacher’s arms. The report grimly notes, “The teacher testified that she initially thought he was playing dead and joked with other staffers about planning his funeral.”
Parents fought for the Texas law following several high profile cases of abuse that were caught on camera.
According to the Dallas Morning News, one of the cases involved an 11-year-old with autism, Micah Watson, whose mother became alarmed when he came home with bruises on his body. A teacher had knocked Micah to the ground and roughly forced him into a small room, holding the door shut. His mother, Bethany Watson, did not discover what had happened, though, until she contacted a reporter at a local television news station to get access to the video. Watson became a major advocate for getting the law passed.
Rachel Stanford of Pearland, Texas, stands to benefit from the new law. Stanford is the mother of Miles, a sweet, blue-eyed 6-year-old with an enormous smile and an abiding love for all things Pixar. He also faces significant cognitive, physical, and behavioral challenges, and is educated in an exclusively special education classroom within a mainstream school.
Stanford expressed relief at the passage of Texas’s new law requiring cameras in the classroom. “If you have a child that’s non-verbal you might not know anything is wrong. If Miles comes home with bruises, I just assume oh, he fell on the playground,” she said.
Stanford stressed the visceral fear that pierces so many parents with children with verbal challenges in particular—the fear that even if something terrible happens, their child will be unable to let them know.
“Since my son is non-verbal, I have no way to find out from him what goes on in school. If they were verbally abusing him, I wouldn’t know, or if they are using unfavorable disciplinary practices. Because Miles does not have a way to tell me,” she said.
Critics of the practice include school districts that balk at the cost of installing cameras and servers, and likely are leery of a flood of lawsuits.
Critics also include some disability advocates, who cite the concern that cameras in classrooms serving kids with special education will only serve to reinforce the practice of educating kids with more significant challenges in separate classrooms. Better, they argue, to include kids even with very significant challenges in typical classrooms.
They remain concerned that cameras will lull people into a false sense of security; they might just drive the abuse underground. There are also, of course, privacy concerns for the students.
Stanford, however, like many parents of children with significant disabilities, feels strongly that her child does best in an exclusively special education classroom, where distractions are reduced and supervision is greater. Given that environment, then, she thinks the camera can help assuage the fears that so many parents have.
At least at this point in his life, she is also less concerned about Miles’s privacy than she is about his safety. “I don’t really have any privacy concerns, other than in restrooms, where there won’t be cameras,” she said. “It’s true that in restrooms, teachers could still go on abusing, but cameras in the classroom are a start. We [parents] all know each other’s small children, so it’s not like I’m concerned about someone else learning the extent of his disability.”
She pointed out that this new rule will make special education classrooms more like most workplaces. After all, most of us work in spaces in which we can be observed by others.
“Most people in jobs have some level of oversight—maybe your boss is down the hall,” she said. “Special Ed classrooms are usually closed off, except for maybe a little slit in the door where someone can peek through. And too often, nobody peeks through.”