Camera in Everett classroom sparks call for hearing

EVERETT — Teachers are furious over the secret taping by the Everett School District last year of a Cascade High School teacher and her classroom, a union president said Tuesday.

The Everett Education Association plans to file a claim that the district violated labor practices and employees’ rights when it used a surveillance camera to tape English and journalism teacher Kay Powers.

The recordings are now missing.

“As it was put to me, an extremely bad comedy,” said Kim Mead, president of the 1,200-member union.

The union will ask a state commission to hold an open hearing to learn more about how the district used the video camera to monitor Powers’ classroom.

District Superintendent Carol Whitehead revealed Friday in a two-page letter to district employees that the district used a video camera to record Powers’ classroom between May 10 and June 11 last year. A district lawyer just last month denied a surveillance camera was used.

Whitehead said in an interview Friday that she was not aware of any videotaping.

At a school board meeting Tuesday evening, Whitehead read a statement explaining the decision to install the surveillance camera.

“After consulting with me, Deputy Superintendent Karst Brandsma authorized the video,” she said.

It was done to determine who was entering and leaving the classroom on weekends, she said, adding that it is the 18,500-student district’s “paramount duty to protect students,” Whitehead said.

“I don’t believe we have violated any laws,” she said.

Board members did not comment on Whitehead’s statement at the meeting and declined comment afterward.

Brandsma will not face disciplinary action, district officials said Tuesday.

“We have no reason to believe discipline of any administrator is appropriate,” district spokeswoman Mary Waggoner said.

Powers was placed on leave in June and fired in November for helping students publish an underground newspaper despite a warning not to do so. She was reinstated in April to a teaching post at Henry M. Jackson High School after reaching a settlement with the district.

In her letter to staff, Whitehead outlined several reasons for firing Powers, saying the teacher spent hours alone with a student producing an underground newspaper, violating curfew and district driving rules.

Powers misused school computers, equipment and software and allowed a student to skip classes to work on nonschool projects, Whitehead wrote. Powers and the students knew their “own behaviors were hush, hush,” she said.

Mitch Cogdill, a lawyer for the teachers union, said that had the case gone to hearing, the district would not have been able to prove those allegations.

“If all this is true, why did she hire (Powers) back?” Cogdill asked. “Isn’t she being negligent in doing so if it’s true?”

Teachers union leaders voted Tuesday to file the unfair labor practices complaint with the Public Employees Relations Commission in Olympia.

District officials said they had no comment Tuesday about the union’s move.

“Discussions of what is and is not a matter for the bargaining table will take place at the table, in good faith, with our employee groups,” Waggoner said.

School officials defended the practice of using video cameras, which are commonly used in hallways and parking lots.

“Video cameras are used as needed to ensure the safety of students, staff or public policy,” Waggoner said. “The public expects that when we have information causing us to believe that students are being harmed or that adults or property are in danger, we will investigate and take protective measures. Video cameras are throughout the district, including as you walk through the front door of this office.”

The district has not released yet how much it paid the vendor in taxpayer money for installing the camera in Powers’ classroom. The district did decide it needed to change the way it conducts video surveillance.

Earlier this month, the district administration wrote a one-page paper outlining the process for installing and using video camera equipment on school property.

It requires requests be made in writing and that they outline why the equipment is needed, how long it will be used and the name, title and signature of who makes the request.

The administrative procedure allows for installation of video equipment in areas “where there is not a reasonable expectation of privacy.” Areas they will be used in include parking lots, entrances, hallways, front offices, gyms, cafeterias and libraries “and other public, shared or common spaces.”

The policy does not mention classrooms.

After the union last month accused the district of secretly taping Powers, Whitehead hired a Seattle lawyer to independently investigate what the district did.

Mike Patterson, the investigator, said he found “no evidence that any audio recordings were made of Kay Powers,” according to Whitehead’s letter. It’s illegal in Washington to make an audio recording of an individual without prior consent. The district has not yet received his bill.

The fact that there is no tape available raises concerns, Cogdill said.

“They did not say there was no audio recording,” Cogdill said. “They said there was no evidence of audio recording. Of course not, if you have no tape.”

Reporter Bill Sheets contributed to this story.

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

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