Behavior issues: the battle over Cascade High’s student newspaper

EVERETT — It was a simple process for a trained technician. Just push up a white ceiling tile, connect a few wires, and a hidden camera was ready to record everyone coming and going in a Cascade High School classroom.

Veteran English and journalism teacher Kay Powers was in trouble.

A proud 1960s lefty whose idea of vacation was to get arrested protesting at a federal military installation, Powers helped students work on the Free Stehekin, an underground newspaper, using school equipment. That was in direct violation of district orders, but she believed she was fighting for freedom of the press.

Former Everett School District Superintendent Carol Whitehead was angry. She was determined to make sure Powers and her students obeyed. On May 10, 2007, the school district had a vendor install a hidden camera in Powers’ classroom — something school officials denied for four months until evidence emerged proving otherwise. The elected school board members, largely silent during the controversy, later sent an e-mail to all Everett’s principals saying Whitehead had their full support.

More than a year later, after nearly $200,000 in taxpayer money paid to attorneys, the beliefs, decisions and events involving the Free Stehekin have left damage in the lives of three people in the middle of the controversy.

Whitehead retired last month after receiving a death threat; the stress and family pressure made her decide to leave 40 years in education behind. Powers, 66, fired but rehired, is set to leave her career too. She still may face state sanctions before she retires in June.

And the former student editor, who almost didn’t graduate, is about the only one who admits his share of responsibility in the adults’ dispute.

“It was the biggest mistake of my life,” said David Whittemore, who’s now a freshman at Central Washington University.

It has taken months and multiple public records requests to dig up verifiable information about what happened during the costly, largely secretive struggle between the school superintendent and the teacher who disobeyed her.

The battle was part of a larger war for control of Everett’s schools, involving the teachers union and the school board. The challenge of picking up the pieces has fallen to Karst Brandsma, Whitehead’s second in command and now interim superintendent.

The role may be challenging for Brandsma because he, too, had a role in the Free Stehekin fracas.

Hundreds of pages of public records, including attorneys’ invoices, e-mails, memos, letters, sworn depositions and minutes from closed-door meetings, show district leaders and Powers embroiled in a conflict where both sides were convinced the ends justified the means:

  • One law firm, Perkins Coie of Seattle, has been paid nearly $170,000 by the district and is likely to bill more as Powers and the teachers union pursue an unfair labor practices complaint over the camera’s use.
  • School officials began planning their investigation early in the 2006-07 school year, months before they confronted Powers or the students and told them to stop. The district lined up a lawyer to investigate the suspected infractions. Brandsma obtained administrator-level access to the school computer network, enabling him to monitor those working on the underground paper.
  • The district appears to have set a trap. Because school computers had been used to get the paper started, Whitehead in February 2007 told the students the district owned all newspaper files, including a student drawing of a bear holding a pencil that was used in the paper’s front page flag. She declared the material off limits.

    But instead of removing Free Stehekin files or otherwise blocking access, school officials kept the records on the computer network and identified those who were tempted to disobey.

  • The district knew within a few weeks that Whitehead’s orders were being ignored, but took no action. By the time officials decided to intervene, Whittemore, then 17, had broken the rules numerous times, was behind in several classes and was at risk of not graduating on time.
  • The camera was installed late in the investigation to pinpoint who was going into Powers’ classroom at night and on weekends. District officials also had come to suspect an improper intimate relationship may have developed between Whittemore and Powers, in part because she was driving him home, in violation of school policies.

    Powers and the former student say that’s absurd. District officials found no evidence to support their suspicions, but continue to raise them to justify their tactics.

  • The school district still resists full disclosure about the camera installed in Powers’ classroom. After repeated denials by district officials, including in a legal proceeding, Whitehead ultimately admitted surveillance was used.

    Later, she commissioned a lawyer to investigate the decision to install the camera. She did not disclose that the same attorney also represented the district in closely related legal matters. The lawyer produced no written report and has yet to submit hourly billings to account for or justify his $17,000 fee.

The district also insists no illegal audio recordings were made during the surveillance, which lasted a month. Administrators say they cannot produce the video recordings because they have gone missing.

Lawyers with no link to the controversy say the district had a duty to maintain those surveillance recordings, particularly if they showed what Powers contends was happening most nights and weekends in her classroom, when she volunteered time to help students with schoolwork.

The tapes are “of obvious evidentiary value to someone and that makes maintaining them important,” said Becky Roe, a former deputy prosecutor who now specializes in civil cases that focus on school districts and other institutions that fail to protect vulnerable people.

“They should have been incredibly careful with these tapes — if it was a good idea to take them in first place,” she said.

A warning from the district

Powers was headed to lunch one day in June 2007 when she was stopped by Jim Dean, who was Cascade’s principal at the time, and Lynn Evans, a school district administrator who supervises half the district’s schools. Dean now is a principal of the new Glacier Peak High School in the Snohomish School District.

Dean, Powers thought, looked like “someone had just slugged him.”

She was handed a letter and ordered to read it aloud. The letter was from the administration, informing her that her 22-year-long teaching career in Everett could be over.

“Here I am, a 64-year-old woman looking down at my shoes like a freshman,” Powers recalled. “If I had to do it all over again, I would have chained myself to the piano in my classroom. I would have taken a stand.”

Some former students jokingly call her “Che Powers,” in part a nod to a poster of Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara that hung on the wall in her Cascade classroom.

Powers said she was not shy about sharing her left-leaning, pro-union views with students. In an e-mail she sent last year, she told a student that the Cold War was against unions, because communists supported unions.

In February 2007, when Whitehead laid down the law about the Free Stehekin, Powers sent her an e-mail promising to abide by the rules.

“I fully intended to not use any district equipment from that point on,” Powers said. “I understood and I meant it.”

She also sent a message to a student, warning about the crackdown, signing it “Yours in Free Speech.”

Powers admits she broke the rules by e-mailing students news tips using school equipment. It was done on the spur of the moment, without really thinking about the potential consequences, she said.

The school district’s investigation shows Powers also handled some advertising sales for the publication and was the unidentified co-author of a column a student started but didn’t finish.

Powers said she and the students went to great lengths trying to keep their work on the underground paper off the Cascade campus, often meeting in a Starbucks near the school.

“All the way along, I was standing up for what the students had been standing up for: freedom of speech,” Powers said. “I think all the decisions I made were the right ones for the time.”

Whitehead disagreed. She fired Powers in November, saying the teacher was insubordinate and engaged in misconduct.

Powers’ disobedience and the district’s investigation were part of a larger struggle between the district and its high school newspapers that began in 2005.

The superintendent, backed by the school board, had insisted as a matter of “fiduciary responsibility” that the content of all of the district’s student publications receive school approval before being printed.

Courts have generally given school administrators broad authority over student publications. The debate in Everett centered on whether the newspapers were public forums – with more constitutional protections – or nonpublic forums that legally can be censored by school officials.

When the Free Stehekin dispute began, the district had already faced litigation in federal court over the school newspaper across town at Everett High School, The Kodak. The lawyer representing the student journalists in that case was Mitch Cogdill, the same lawyer whose firm also represents the teachers union. He had regularly sparred with district officials over personnel matters.

Cogdill said he’s convinced the school district’s fight to review student publications was less about protecting district assets than it was about defending Whitehead’s “complete control, complete authority.”

Going on the offensive

“DO NOT EVER BELIEVE ANYTHING YOU READ IN A NEWSPAPER OR HEAR ON THE NEWS!!!!!!!!” Whitehead wrote in an all-caps e-mail to an official at the state Office for the Superintendent of Public Instruction. “DO NOT EVER THINK THERE IS SUCH A THING AS JOURNALISM!!!! DO NOT EVER TRUST THOSE WITH WHOM YOU NEGOTIATE!!! DO NOT EVER DOUBT ANY OF THESE STATEMENTS!!!”

Whitehead was angry about an August 2007 story in The Herald regarding the settlement of the federal lawsuit involving two former Kodak student editors.

The students and school district wound up in court in 2005 after Everett administrators tried to enforce district policies requiring administrators to review student newspapers before publication.

The crackdown prompted students at Everett and Cascade high schools to go “underground,” both publishing newspapers not officially approved by the school. Cascade’s student literary magazine, Tyro, also went underground.

Whitehead launched a public relations campaign as events unfolded.

She sent out numerous e-mails and memos to school officials around the state, as well as to people she considered influential in Snohomish County, complaining that the district’s perspective was being shortchanged.

Whitehead was unswerving in her argument that the dispute was not about the First Amendment, but about defending the district and its assets.

In carefully documented conversations, Whitehead maintained that use of school property by Powers and the Free Stehekin staff not only was insubordinate, but also a potential crime.

“If school district property of any kind, real property or software or print or paper or pencil, is used, then it is the property of the school district and therefore must follow under all school district policies and procedures,” she said in a separate March 2008 deposition taken when the teachers union was investigating the firing of Powers.

More than 20 Cascade teachers signed a long letter to the school board in June 2007, after Powers was removed from her job. They questioned the wisdom of the district’s policy on student publications and Whitehead’s leadership.

For the first time, they also raised the suspicion that a camera had been secretly used in Powers’ classroom.

“For us as staff, (the case) brings up questions about district priorities,” they wrote. “Why are precious public education tax dollars being used to shore up enforcement of a legally ambiguous policy? Isn’t classroom instruction our first priority for the use of district funds?”

The teachers urged the board to “provide the leadership and influence to help us move away from what we increasingly perceive as an adversarial, controlling and overly legalistic approach to education management.”

Union leaders decided to take up Powers case.

A public hearing over Whitehead’s decision to fire Powers was scheduled for mid-April. Days before, on April 11, Powers and Whitehead agreed to settle. Powers was reinstated with back pay and allowed to teach through the 2008-09 school year.

At the time, union leaders said they were prepared to introduce a surveillance expert who would testify that he believed a hidden camera had been used in Powers classroom.

In June, Whitehead decided to retire early. She said her decision was prompted in part by her family’s concern over a mailed death threat she reported having received at school district headquarters in late April. The nature of the threat has not been revealed by Whitehead, the district, or Everett Police. The investigation is still open and no suspects have been identified.

In e-mails intended to be more private, she also revealed deep bitterness, particularly toward some in the teachers union.

“This has been ugly and I expect will continue for some time,” she wrote a colleague in May. “I regret that evil exists. Although I have run into evil before, this experience has been more than I ever expected. I am trying to discover why I would need to learn this.”

Her last day was Aug. 31. In an exchange of letters with The Herald earlier this month, Whitehead wrote that it would be improper to discuss the surveillance issue because the union has filed for arbitration on the issue.

“In addition, once more,” she wrote, “I will repeat to you, ‘…the video monitoring equipment, which was installed by an outside vendor, was put inside the classroom… at the vendor’s direction.’

“Furthermore, I have stated honestly and accurately before and will state again I was unaware of any video recordings and did not use any video recordings or any information obtained from any video recordings prior to my decision to dismiss Ms. Powers.”

In her letter, Whitehead also asked that this statement be run in its entirety and with no editing.

“I have been truthful when making statements about the procedures used when I made the decision to dismiss Ms. Powers, not only when answering questions posed by The Herald, but to the Everett Public Schools Board of Directors, staff and parents and the greater Everett School District community. As the superintendent for Everett Public Schools, and in every other public school position I held during my 40 years in this profession, I had a duty to protect the safety and education of each student. I have retired from public education knowing that I served public school districts, students, staff members, parents and communities with integrity.”

Called to the office

Student editor David Whittemore wasn’t worried when he was called to the office at the Sno-Isle Tech Skills Center in south Everett.

As a junior in the spring of 2007, he spent part of his school days there taking a business class.

It didn’t take him long, however, to realize he was in trouble.

Whittemore, then the Free Stehekin’s managing editor, was confronted with a binder of computer screen shots documenting his use of school equipment to work on the paper.

He fessed up and braced for the consequences. Even so, according to notes taken during the meeting, the boy begged the adults for one favor.

Whittemore lived in a W. Casino Road apartment that is in the Mukilteo School District. Each year he had to apply for permission to attend Cascade and he pleaded for permission to finish high school there.

Today, Whittemore rejects the district’s assertion that Powers pushed him too hard to publish the paper but he holds no grudges against the district for his discipline.

“I didn’t think I was going to get caught and it would be worth the risk,” Whittemore remembers thinking at one time.

In hindsight, he said it was a huge mistake, the biggest of his life.

Whittemore paid a price. He was suspended for 10 days, went to summer school to make up credits and was placed on tight restrictions at Cascade his senior year.

He also faced two gruelling meetings where he begged Whitehead, and later the school board, to let him stay at Cascade.

Then, there was the district’s insinuation that he and Powers could have been having an inappropriate relationship, a question the district’s investigator raised during questioning of Powers’ fellow teachers and in a letter sent to community.

Characterizing their teacher-pupil relationship this way was absurd, Whittemore said. “She’s a 60-plus-year-old lady!” he said.

“The teacher was dismissed because: She spent many hours alone with a student in the evenings and on weekends,” Whitehead wrote, “transported the student many times in her personal vehicle without permission from the student’s mother and against school district policy, kept the student out past his curfew until he became exhausted, unable to sleep and physically ill… .”

Whittemore said working with Powers on the Free Stehekin gave him new perspectives.

He grew up in a household as the only child of a single mother who works the night shift. He also held down a job at McDonald’s for roughly 25 hours a week and occasionally contributed to paying the rent.

Although he didn’t always agree with Powers’ lefty politics, Whittemore found the teacher interesting.

The underground newspaper gave him a sense of belonging and a mission. His role as editor led to speaking engagements and radio interviews.

In June 2007, Whittemore and his mother met with Whitehead. Whitehead said she was concerned about the boy’s academic performance, his credibility and his ability to follow rules. The conversation was documented by her aide, who took near-verbatim notes.

“A lesson you can learn from this experience is that the CEO of any organization, which would include the superintendent of a school district, is aware of what goes on in that organization,” Whitehead told Whittemore. “You cannot get away with doing something illegal, and trying to do so is not the proper or ethical way to lead your life.”

With tears in his eyes, Whittemore said he “would do almost anything” to stay at Cascade.

Whitehead recommended against it.

Two months later, Whittemore met behind closed doors with Everett School Board members who said they wanted to be convinced he was truly remorseful.

Whittemore took responsibility for his actions, but when he said he’d really only hurt himself, board president Karen Madsen disagreed.

“I have taken a lot of grief from friends and acquaintances,” Madsen said, according to district records. “We had to retain an attorney and spend money that will not go to the students. There has not been an accurate portrayal of the situation. Everett Public Schools has been cast in a bad light.”

Later Madsen told the boy “You made Cascade High School a worse place.”

Ultimately, though, the board did let Whittemore return.

Today, Powers describes Whittemore as “a mensch,” a Yiddish word for a person having admirable characteristics, such as fortitude.

Powers has been reassigned to Henry M. Jackson High School, where she teaches English and is not involved in the journalism program. She is waiting to learn if the state Office of Professional Practices will discipline her following a complaint brought by Whitehead.

Brandsma, now interim superintendent, also came to hold Whittemore in regard.

At Whittemore’s graduation in June, Brandsma, who had questioned him several times during the investigation, shook the teen’s hand and gave him a medallion inscribed “for excellence.”

The acknowledgement was for Whittemore catching up on his class work to graduate on time, for learning from his mistakes and for abiding by the conditions placed on him.

Whittemore is considering a degree in business administration and has no plans to study journalism.

“It is nice to start with a clean slate,” he said.

Reporter Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446 or stevick@heraldnet.com.

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