NICEVILLE — Miramar Beach resident Bettye Mendez wants cameras placed in classrooms in Okaloosa County, specifically in rooms caring for students with disabilities.
Mendez, a grandmother to a special needs student in another district, said she wanted to address the Okaloosa County School Board Monday night because of the abuse cases that have come to light in the past two years.
Since August 2017, the district's ESE programs have been under scrutiny. It began after it was discovered that an autistic boy was abused while enrolled at Kenwood Elementary. A subsequent investigation of the matter, and others in the school district, led to the arrest of four district officials for child abuse or failing to report child abuse. Pre-K disabled teacher, Marlynn Stillions, was convicted on three child abuse charges late in 2018 and sentenced to seven years in prison.
The OCSD scandal also resulted in this year’s suspension of Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson.
“I am directly addressing this school board today to make a plea for cameras in classrooms to transparently address the cultural problems in the Okaloosa County schools,” Mendez said to the School Board on Monday night. “It appears that the abusive behavior directed at students with disabilities by school district personnel has become normalized in educational institutions, to include Okaloosa County.”
Mendez explained that in her opinion, filming classroom settings would not only benefit the well being of students, but also protect the reputation of teachers.
“We cannot afford not to videotape and assure, not only the teachers are believed, but the students are believed,” she said. “We shouldn’t be afraid or embarrassed to be videotaped.”
However, Okaloosa County School Board Chairman Lamar White said that placing cameras in classrooms may be in violation of the law.
Staff attorney Jeff McGinnis explained that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act has strict policies on where cameras can be placed on school grounds, and that placing cameras inside of classrooms could violate privacy laws regarding student performance. He also noted that OCSD does have security cameras in the hallways and exteriors of schools, but cameras inside of the classroom require different parameters.
“The issues with cameras inside of the classrooms … you have students performing academically in those classrooms and that type information, each student and their family have the right to have that protected,” McGinnis said.
School board member Dewey Destin said that in recent meetings with ESE parent groups in the county, he has heard others mention a desire for cameras in classrooms, and for his part, he supports it.
“It looks like they are trying to move toward what it is that you’re seeking,” he said. “I, to the extent that the law allows, would support cameras because they tell both sides of every story.”
White added that on the whole, the school board is not opposed to Mendez’ proposal, but instead wants to ensure that they are abiding by the full extent of the law.
“Should the legislature pass a law, that would give us the ability to do something like you’re proposing without having to worry about the consequences associated with these legal things,” White said. “You’re asking us to do it of our own volition without laws.”
White also noted that the state of Texas is the only state that allows cameras to be placed within ESE classrooms, and then only if the parents request it. He also pointed out that placing cameras in classrooms is not supported by some in the ESE community.
Mendez said that she still believes that the only way to stop abuse towards ESE children is to create an environment that holds adults responsible.
“Everyone has to start somewhere and you can step out and be that person and that board that does the right thing for your children,” she said. “It’s a hard row to hoe but we must do it.”