Gov. Jim Justice has signed legislation allowing public school administrators to regularly check the camera footage in special education classrooms and requiring a study of possibly letting parents do this, too.
Justice said no one should fear cameras in these classrooms.
“Who in the world should be afraid of that, except someone who is doing something bad,” he said during Friday’s bill-signing ceremony in the Capitol.
Craig and Beth Bowden’s son, Trenton, was allegedly abused at Kanawha County’s Holz Elementary. Their lawsuit against the Kanawha school system and the criminal case against a former teacher are ongoing.
The Bowdens lobbied for the new laws and brought their sons to Friday’s event.
“It’s going to protect all the kids around the state that are special needs,” Craig said, “and the ones that aren’t even born yet.”
No state lawmaker voted against the legislation. Several joined Justice for Friday’s event.
One of the new laws, House Bill 4600, also establishes specific penalties for mistreating children with mental or physical disabilities; failing to report mistreatment of a child with disabilities; impeding someone from reporting such mistreatment; or retaliating against someone who reports such mistreatment.
Bowden particularly praised a section that can penalize repeated “threatening” or “humiliating” conduct toward children that’s neither physical nor verbal, such as withholding a wheelchair from a child who needs it.
HB 4600 also creates a database identifying “school employees who are under active investigation for misconduct towards children.”
The other new law, Senate Bill 261, additionally extends, from 90 days to 365, the minimum amount of footage a school must retain at any time, allowing those viewing the footage to go back further, upon suspicion of an incident.
But that increased footage-retention requirement applies only to camera systems replaced or installed after April 1 of this year.
Public schools statewide already were required to install these cameras under a 2019 law, which passed amid special education abuse allegations in the Berkeley County school system.
That law allowed parents and guardians of students involved in alleged incidents, such as bullying, abuse or neglect, to view the videos. Incidents are defined under that law as suspicions raised by parents, guardians, teachers or aides.
But, outside of an alleged incident, the 2019 law prohibited “regular” or “continual” monitoring of the footage. Justice’s signing of SB 261 strikes out that prohibition and adds a minimum requirement that public school administrators must review at least 15 minutes of footage from each special education classroom at least every 90 days.
SB 261 also lifts the mandate that schools delete the footage after a certain time.
The new laws came in the wake of a string of lawsuits and criminal charges since May alleging that some Kanawha teachers and aides abused special education students. The 2019 law provided the central evidence for each ongoing Kanawha civil lawsuit and criminal case: footage of the alleged abuse.
Justice, referencing Trenton Bowden and the other children at the signing, said God “knows they should be protected, and we’re supposed to do the protecting.”
Craig Bowden said he still wants to see the minimum required time administrators must view the footage increased to an hour per month. And he would like to add audio-only recording to these classrooms’ bathrooms, where some special education children require adult help.
But he called the new laws “a huge step forward.”
HB 4600’s mandated studies will bring the issue up again. That new law requires the state departments of Education and Health and Human Resources to complete several studies, including one on a possible “program for public schools and government operated programs” allowing parents to remotely view classrooms and other areas where children with disabilities are taught, housed or cared for.