December 21, 2015
It's happened again. A video shows students in a South Jersey classroom being beaten, bullied or mistreated, allegedly by members of the school staff.
This time, it's at the Bancroft School in Haddonfield, operated by a wide-ranging non-profit service provider for children and adults with special needs.
The Camden County Prosecutor's Office announced Thursday that Bancroft staff members Natassia Hines and Mondja Djamba had been charged with aggravated assault, kidnapping and weapons violations after surveillance cameras allegedly showed them beating a 14-year-old boy with a belt, and restraining that student and a 19-year-old student under desks.
Unfortunately, it's the third time in four years locally that a video camera has shown a special-needs student being physically or verbally abused by a teacher or staff member.
In 2011, the world viewed a teacher at the Bankbridge Regional School in Deptford Township repeatedly belittle and threaten a 15-year-old student in a class for students with various disabilities. The teacher was fired, in a case where an appellate court upheld the Gloucester County Special Services District's termination.
The outcome was different in a 2012 incident. A 10-year-old autistic student at Horace Mann Elementary School in Cherry Hill was bullied and verbally harassed by a teacher and aides, as seen on a video posted by a fed-up parent. The teacher — who had been suspended — was ordered reinstated last year when a judge ruled that the video violated state surveillance and wiretapping laws.
Admittedly, privacy issues surround recordings of minors in classrooms, especially minors with disabilities or emotional/behavioral issues. It would be chilling to require that every moment of student-educator interaction be recorded.
Yet, if it's not legal to make unannounced recordings, the courts and the state Department of Education must find another way to monitor these classes effectively. Perhaps recording can be random, with cameras in the open, but not active all of the time. More frequent in-person monitoring of special-needs classes by administrators could also reveal some long-standing mistreatment.
Children on the autism spectrum may be less likely than other students to speak up in school about physical or mental cruelty. Other special-needs students have limited ability to communicate, too. It's a complication that might dictate more liberal use of hidden cameras than in general classrooms. Let's see clearer guidelines about what type of surveillance is permissible and what type is not. Meanwhile, don't judge too harshly any parent who takes matters into his or her own hands to get proof of his child's complaints.
At none of these three schools is there evidence that abusive behavior is, or was, routine. But frustrating situations will arise. Staff members who cannot respond appropriately don't belong in front of special-needs classrooms. If it takes video evidence to get them removed, so be it.
Have you ever seen a staff member bully a student? What did you do about it?