Wednesday, March 8, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Olivia Espinoza looked sternly at a camera from Las Vegas on Tuesday as she explained to Nevada Senate Committee on Education Chairman Mo Denis, sitting in Carson City, why her son — an elementary-age, special-needs student — should be filmed while at school.
“Every parent asks their child what’s going on at school,” Espinoza told Denis. “I don’t get an answer because my child cannot speak.”
Espinoza’s son, who is nonverbal and autistic, was a victim of physical abuse from his special education teacher at Forbuss Elementary School. The teacher, James Doran, was arrested and later pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor battery after at least three teacher's aides reported seeing him grab Espinoza’s son by the arms and shirt multiple times and forcefully throw him down through the better part of several months in 2014.
She advocated that Senate Bill 224, which calls for mandatory video cameras in Clark County School District classrooms where at least 51 percent of students are categorized as special-needs and nonverbal, would serve as a safety measure in holding staff accountable and protecting mentally disabled young children like her son.
“We have cameras everywhere else in this day in age,” Espinoza said during Tuesday’s Senate Committee of Education hearing on SB224 and two other bills. “We need them to protect our most vulnerable people, too.”
Las Vegas resident Valerie Martini, a former CCSD special education teacher, vouched for the cameras as a protective measure for staff, too. Martini, who taught in the district earlier this decade, described chaotic scenes in which special-needs students in her classroom did everything from “slap each another” to “turn over furniture and file cabinets.” As their teacher, Martini said she was not properly trained to handle such situations.
“I think it would protect everybody — teachers, aides and students, and set a safer environment for everybody,” she said.
Speaking Tuesday, a lobbying representative from the school district said the cost of the video surveillance technology and exact number of classrooms affected if the bill passes was still being determined. The school district would phase in the cameras over two-year periods, lobbyist Theo Small said, beginning in fall 2018 for all CCSD elementary schools and fall 2020 for all middle and high schools. As an unfunded mandate, the bill would require money not initially accounted for in Gov. Brian Sandoval’s recommended $7.9 billion general funding budget.
The bill aims to move forward multiple years’ worth of campaigning by Espinoza and fellow parents of special-needs children in the school district in the wake of CCSD employee abuse — both sexual and physical — of special-needs students over the past several years.
In March 2012, Variety School teacher’s aide Lachell James was arrested on charges of felony child abuse and and later pleaded guilty to two such felony counts after police said she was captured on surveillance video dragging an autistic male student to the center of the room and pinning the student to the ground. James also pushed another special-needs student in the back and pinned him against cabinets, police said. Both students were nonverbal.
In May 2013, authorities reported that Foothill High School teacher Amanda Brennan exchanged over 1,000 text messages with a 15-year-old special-needs student over nine days and later confessed to kissing the student. Brennan was charged with luring children or mentally ill persons with the intent to engage in sexual conduct, and is in the process of serving five years of probation.
Last June, Mack Middle School teacher’s assistant Fausto Barraza-Balcazar, 59, was arrested and jailed after police said he abused three different special-needs students, two of which were girls ages 12 and 13, with the mental capacities of a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old. He was sentenced on Feb. 14 to five years of probation after pleading guilty to one felony charge of attempted lewdness with a child under 14.
Though Clark County School District has not yet installed cameras in its classrooms, it has since 2012 purchased only school buses with video surveillance cameras, school spokeswoman Melinda Malone said. All district special-needs buses currently have video cameras installed, while 50 percent of general education buses have the cameras.
“They’re a great security measure and protect both the safety of students and bus drivers,” Malone said. “When we buy new, we buy with surveillance cameras. Eventually all of our buses will have the cameras as we phase out the older ones.”