I recently ran across a Special Education Hearing Officer decision from a couple of years ago in Pennsylvania that I found fascinating. The question at hand was, “Is the student’s educational program reasonable calculated to provide FAPE in the least restrictive environment (“LRE”)?” The student has a rare, genetic disease that manifests itself into a condition called hyperimmunoglobulinema-D (HIDS). Because of this, there are periods of time every month where he couldn’t be in the classroom to learn and he was missing a lot of instruction. During these periods of time when he couldn’t be in the classroom to learn the school set up a webcam room on campus.
“The District’s webcam capability allows a viewer to see the whiteboard in the front of the room and to pan the camera to follow a teacher as he or she might move around the room. Teachers wear lapel microphones so that there is full audio for the teacher’s words. There is an iChat feature that allows a viewer to send an instant message to the teacher in each classroom.”
Unfortunately, due to the discomfort the student experienced his ability to go to the school and utilize the webcam room was extremely limited. Although he was absent 35.5 days he was only able to use the webcam room four times for short periods. The school never considered or discussed webcam arrangements outside of school that could be provided directly into the student’s home. Instead, the school provided “one hour of homebound tutoring for every day of instruction missed.” The tutoring was “geared toward assignment completion and makeup work and does not consist of direct instruction.”
While deciding this case the Hearing Officer wrote:
“By way of dicta, there is certainly an intersection here of the tides of LRE as a physical location with a technological decoupling of place due to the virtualization of teaching and learning through technology. Those tides, though, swirl around educational policy and practice, technological capabilities and advances. This decision, however, is grounded in a simple question: has the District provided FAPE in the LRE by utilizing (or at least considering) available technological modifications to allow the student to access direct instruction as it is delivered in the regular education setting? The weight of the record supports an answer in the negative.”
In the Hearing Officer’s Order he wrote:
“In accord with the findings of fact and conclusions of law as set forth above, the District is ordered to convene the IEP Team within 20 days of the date of this order explicitly to consider and discuss options for remote access to direct instruction in the regular education environment for the student at home during the recovery phase of the student’s HIDS symptoms.”
He went on to order that by the first day of the next school year the school must have a way to allow for remote access of direct instruction into the student’s home. This ruling was amazing to me on many levels because it, 1) showed how far technology has come and that video conferencing systems such as Skype or Google video chat can easily be used to help provide FAPE, and 2) this child’s right to be provided FAPE seems to trump any privacy issues that might arise having a camera in the classroom. By the way, this hearing decision also discussed a grant program called P.E.B.B.L.E.S. Project: Extended Learning and Teaching Initiative that sounds amazing and you might want to check out.
Let’s focus on my second point for a moment, I have written in the past that I am all for putting camera’s in special needs classrooms for the safety of the children but that I think it needs to be done through a federal or state law. Basically, we need to do it in a thoughtful manner so that it’s not abused. While that will take some time, planning and lobbying there are some extreme needs today due to the many instances of abuse that keep popping up in the news. I am not a lawyer but I think this ruling coupled with the fact that both the Federal Courts and the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) have said that bullying can cause a denial of FAPE might be helpful to get cameras in some classrooms right away.
If you bear with me a moment I will walk you through my thinking. This ruling at its essence says the use of cameras in the classroom is an acceptable method to provide FAPE to a child that can’t make it into school. Children who are bullied, or worse abused, are very distrusting of the classroom environment and sometimes with very good cause. When this distrust or their emotional state makes it impossible for them to learn in that classroom then they are not being provided FAPE. This denial of FAPE, in my opinion, can be immediately rectified by placing a camera in the classroom. When the child feels safe and knows the parents can observe through a webcam in their home they will be emotionally ready to learn again. Again, I’m not a lawyer and I have no idea whether this argument will pass muster with a Hearing Officer but I’d sure like to see someone try.
In the meantime, this ruling on its face is wonderful news for children who are on home/hospital as their placement option and need access to more direct instruction then they are currently getting. Since this is only a hearing officer decision in Pennsylvania their will need to be a Federal court ruling before there is a legal precedent set but I am optimistic for the future.