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Hephzibah mother advocates for cameras in special education classrooms

Augusta Chronicle - 3/8/2020

Mar. 8--Over the past few years, Jessica Wells has advocated for a cause that hits close to home.

Wells said her autistic son, Preston, was getting off the special education bus during the 2014-15 school year when a peer professional allegedly hit him, causing a contusion on his forehead. She and her husband called the Division of Family and Children Services, which directed them to report the claim to the Richmond County school district.

"(The doctors) concluded this was abuse, which is what we suspected," Wells said.

She said the school district opened an investigation that lasted a couple of months but found no wrongdoing.

She decided not to file a lawsuit because "we are not out for money." But it did fuel a desire to change things.

Now the Hephzibah mother along with two metro Atlanta parents, are pushing House Bill 1001, which would make cameras mandatory in self-contained classrooms that provide special education. The bill was introduced last week by Rep. Valencia Stovall, D-Forest Park.

Currently, HB 624 encourages schools districts to install the cameras but does not make it mandatory.

"This is just something, it's getting to the point where it's getting worse," Wells said. "We can't let this go, so we are just putting in to have it mandated."

Wells has been pushing for the Richmond County Board of Education to install cameras in her son's classrooms and every special needs classroom. She said she wishes board members would show more interest and realize the scope of the problem.

She is scheduled to talk about HB 1001 and the need for cameras inside special needs classrooms at the board' s meeting Tuesday. She hopes board members and Superintendent Kenneth Bradshaw are willing to listen and start a dialogue.

The bill is not expect to pass during the current legislative session, but Wells said introducing it this year provides an opportunity to make changes to the legislation and answer any questions or concerns legislators, school districts or parents might have. She said they have received a lot of support from parents.

"I've heard very minimal negative comments compared to all the support. That's really good because this is not just about my child, this is about all the children," she said.

Wells understands some parents might be concerned about privacy issues, but she notes that most schools already have cameras in hallways, lunchrooms, play areas, parking lots and other areas.

Unlike Richmond County, the Columbia County school district has cameras installed in every self-contained special needs classroom.

"We chose to have them in these classrooms for a variety of reasons, such as to be able to view events if concerns are raised about students or teachers," spokeswoman Abbigail Remkus said in a statement.

The Richmond County school system said in a statement that it will comply with any Georgia law regarding education and will be monitoring the progress of HB 1001.

Wells said cameras would protect children from potential abuse and teachers from unfounded allegations, and are not intended to monitor a teacher's classroom performance or be used in evaluations.

"We have a saying that us three parents made, 'Keeps the children from being abused and the teachers from being accused,'" Wells said. "There is no reason someone would object to something that would save on litigation, accusations Cameras give a final voice. It's a final say."

Preston, 12, is now in sixth grade and enjoys going to school and being around other children, but it has taken him a long time to get there.

"It's taken these few years to get him back where he needs to be," she said. 'It's very heartbreaking. These kids are always overlooked."

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