EVERETT — A hidden camera secretly taped the classroom of a controversial Cascade High School teacher to find out if she was helping students work on an underground newspaper, Everett School District officials acknowledged Friday.
The video has since disappeared. And administrators have created rules for any future surveillance deemed necessary in the 18,000-student public school district.
The admission by Superintendent Carol Whitehead proves that the teachers union was right last month when it accused the district of spying on Kay Powers before she was fired. At the time, a lawyer for the school district denied the allegation.
On Friday, Whitehead told the district’s 2,500 employees in a two-page letter that Deputy Superintendent Karst Brandsma authorized the taping.
“I was not aware that there was any video,” she said in an interview. There was no audio taken by the camera, she added. To do so without prior consent from those being spied upon is illegal in Washington.
Whitehead did not say whether any taxpayer money went to pay for the surveillance company that set up and monitored the camera.
After the teachers union made its allegations public in April, Whitehead hired another lawyer to determine if her district did in fact spy on Powers.
Whitehead said she wanted an “independent investigator” who could question district leaders.
That report, by Seattle lawyer Mike Patterson, concluded that a video camera was installed in the classroom between May 10 and June 11 of last year. It was unclear Friday how much the district spent to employ Patterson.
“Deputy Superintendent Brandsma authorized video monitoring from the hallway looking at the door to Kay Powers’ classroom to determine if students were frequenting her classroom late at night or on weekends in violation of school policies and the district directives to Kay Powers,” the report said.
Powers and her students were banned from using district equipment to publish an alternative newspaper. Powers’ firing followed the district’s discovery that a student had used a classroom computer to copy files from an e-mail account to his personal laptop for use in an alternative student newspaper.
It was unclear whether Brandsma would be disciplined; he could not be reached for comment on Friday.
The hidden camera was supposed to be in the hallway outside of the classroom, but the company hired to install it placed it on the ceiling inside Powers’ room, according to the report. The camera was directed at the classroom door, the report said.
A video showing individuals from the waist up coming and going from the classroom was delivered to Brandsma. But now the video’s “current whereabouts are unknown,” the report said.
Patterson also concluded that there is “no evidence that any audio recordings were made.”
Whitehead said she never saw the video recording and it played no role in her decision to fire Powers.
“My determination to terminate the employment was not retaliation. It was not an attempt to interfere with her free speech rights, and it was not based on any information seen or heard from any form of video or audio surveillance,” she said.
Union leaders said they are glad the district now admits the camera was used.
“It does prove what we have been saying all along, that the district … had practiced surveillance,” said Kim Mead, president of the Everett Education Association. “I just find it so disappointing that they believe it is OK to treat employees in this manner.”
Several Cascade High teachers told union leaders they saw a mysterious object on the ceiling of Powers’ classroom last year. The union accused administrators of spying on the teacher before she was fired in November. They planned to make that argument in a hearing to get her job back.
Powers could not be reached for comment Friday.
Attorneys for Powers also were ready to argue that the district was retaliating against her for supporting Everett High School students in a federal court case involving The Kodak student newspaper.
The district earlier this year settled The Kodak lawsuit, which was filed in 2005 after a dispute over whether the school principal could review each issue before publication.
On April 11, just days before the case was going to a public hearing, the school district and Powers settled, giving her a new teaching assignment at Henry M. Jackson High School in Mill Creek. As part of the settlement, Powers, 65, agreed she would resign at the end of the 2008-09 school year.
Meanwhile, the district administration earlier this month 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.
It states that video surveillance can be used throughout the public school district “if it becomes necessary for the safety of students, staff or property.”
Requests must be reviewed by Whitehead, whose approval must be seconded by another district administrator. The process does not address how or whether the school board, the elected representatives who oversee the district, would be advised of any need for surveillance.
The administrative procedure allows for installation of video equipment in areas “where there is not a reasonable expectation of privacy,” such as parking lots, entrances, hallways, front offices, gyms, cafeterias and libraries “and other public, shared or common spaces.”
It does not mention classrooms.
The use of audio equipment would follow state law, and therefore not be allowed without individuals’ prior consent.
Doug Wartelle, an Everett attorney who represents the teachers union, said he believes the camera installation in Powers’ classroom and the new surveillance procedure constitute unfair labor practices.
“The district was obligated to notify the association and bargain that issue before it engaged in that illicit activity,” he said.
Whitehead said the district is on firm legal ground.
“I don’t believe the district has violated any laws,” she said.
The surveillance issue was at the root of an April 23 death threat against her, Whitehead said, adding that she could not discuss details of the threat because it is part of a police investigation. She said it was a written and “calculated death threat that took a couple of days” to arrive.
Everett police continue to investigate, Everett police Sgt. Robert Goetz said. Anonymous threats can be difficult to track down, he said.
After Whitehead received the threat, district officials hired off-duty Everett police officers to patrol the administration office during business hours.
Reporter Diana Hefley contributed to this story.
Reporter Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.