By Carol Lloyd
How many times have parents worried that something deeply wrong was going on in their child’s school, but didn’t have the intel to know for sure? Last week’s story of a father who slipped an audio recorder into the pocket of his son, then posted excerpts of the recordings of the classroom on YouTube, has – for better or for worse – given parents everywhere a new strategy for finding out exactly what is happening at their child's school.
Call it the age of surveillance parenting.
The online saga began when Stuart Chaifetz, a former school board candidate of Cherry Hill District in New Jersey, received reports from his child’s school that his 10-year-old son Akian, who is in a self-contained class for children diagnosed with autism, was acting out in class – hitting teachers and throwing things. Chaifetz said his son had no previous history of violence or misbehavior and so the information was especially troubling.
His son, who speaks but has difficulty communicating, could not answer questions about the class that has both a special ed teacher and two or three aids. So on February 17, he “wired” his son and was shocked to hear the results: adults talking about getting drunk in front of the children, mocking his son, telling his son to “shut his mouth,” and in one instance, calling him a “bastard.”
He shared the recording with the Cherry Hill District officials, and they soon issued a statement that those involved no longer worked for the district. But Chaifetz believed otherwise – that the teacher identified as Kelly Altenburg - remained employed with another school in the district. So he went public with his recording, demanding the aid and teacher involved come forward with a public apology.
The 17-minute video of a fuming Chaifetz narrating excerpts of the audio recording went viral with 3.7 million views (and counting), hundreds of news reports and an outpouringof support from angry parents with similar stories to tell. The recording captures pretty horrific moments including one where as Akian whimpers in the background, one of the adults yell: "Go ahead and scream, because guess what? You are going to get nothing until your mouth is shut."
Is secret audio the new nanny cam?
How this shaming and naming game will play out is hard to say. Secret audio recordings are certainly not legal in every state. Laws about tape recording others vary radically - with states like California and Michigan not allowing much in the way of citizen surveillance and states like Vermont not even prohibiting hidden cameras! Whatever the law, this case has obviously captured the imaginations of thousands of parents who feel helpless about their child’s schooling. Chaifetz told the Huffington Post that since he posted his video many “desperate” parents contacted him “looking for help on how to wire” their children.
Surreptitious audio recordings have been used in numerous cases in special ed classrooms and Wendy Fournier, president of the National Autism Association told the Huffington Post that "If a parent has any reason at all to suggest a child is being abused or mistreated, I strongly recommend [it].” Indeed, an ACLU report a few years back found that students with disabilities are at special risk for being abused by teachers, a fact that no doubt has made many parents of children in special ed programs particularly vigilant.
But if we learned anything from the movie “Bully,” which captured unbelievable acts of bullying by kids (and absurd denials from educators), it's that sometimes a hidden camera or recorder is also useful for typical kids – kids who are too afraid to speak up, or more often, kids whom nobody believes.
We send our children to school every day, trusting they will be safe, that the adults charged with their care will not abuse their power. Until recently, parents had little to go on but the "he said/she said" of teachers and kids. Classroom cams (like the kind they have in some preschools) offer a “brave new world” kind of solution with its own chilling effects, but when faced with this case, I can’t help but wonder, would it be so bad if every school assumes that “big parent” just may be watching?